Activists and politicians urged Congress Monday to protect millions in funding for 9/11 first responders and other survivors from the budget cuts known as sequestration.
The group -- including members of the New York Congressional delegation -- called on lawmakers in Manhattan to add the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to a list of 150 federal programs exempt from automatic budget cuts scheduled to kick in Friday unless lawmakers agree on a deficit-reduction plan.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who voted against sequestration, noted that two programs under the Zadroga Act that provide funding for health monitoring and financial aid to sick Ground Zero workers could lose $27 million if Congress allows the across-the-board cuts to take place.
"These heroes, their families, they simply deserve better," she said.
It took years for activists and the New York congressional delegation to persuade their colleagues to set aside $4.3 billion to treat and compensate first responders and other people exposed to dust, smoke and fumes at Ground Zero.
Joseph Zadroga -- father of James Zadroga, 34, an NYPD detective whose 2006 death was attributed to exposure to toxic fumes at Ground Zero -- cried as he talked about first responders who don't have money to put gas in their cars to get to their doctor appointments. Joseph Zadroga said that, when his son fell ill, his son and daughter-in-law ate spaghetti for two weeks so they could have money to buy baby formula for their daughter.
"And that's what I would say to Congress: 'Please help these people. Don't destroy them. You're putting them down again,' " he pleaded. "We work so hard to get this passed and now you're kicking them . . . again and telling them they're not important. They are important."
Gillibrand, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, all Democrats, said they are pushing for passage of a bill, expected to be filed by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), that would prevent the Zadroga Act from facing cuts in the future if Congress can't agree on a deficit-reduction plan. A King spokesman did not return calls.
When Congress identified programs and exempted them from budget cuts, including payments to veterans and pensions for former U.S. presidents, the Zadroga Act hadn't yet become law. President Barack Obama signed it in January 2011.
John Feal, an advocate who heads the nonprofit FealGood Foundation, said he plans to marshal firefighters, police officers and other first responders across the country to pressure elected officials to exempt the Zadroga Act from budget cuts.
"It's going to spike their post-traumatic . . . [stress]. It's going to spike their financial woes. It's going to make them worry about the next week and the next month, and how they're going to live," said Feal. "This is really un-American. Shame on Congress."