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Ailing first responders, survivors plead for lawmakers to reauthorize Zadroga Act

WASHINGTON -- Retired New York City police Officer David Howley put it bluntly at a House hearing Thursday on extending the 9/11 World Trade Center Health Program before it expires at the end of September: "If you end this program, people are going to die."

Howley was one of dozens of ailing first responders and survivors who came to Washington to urge lawmakers to reauthorize the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which became law in 2011.

They received a warm reception and welcoming assurances -- from both Democratic and Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health -- that the program would not be shut down.

"The bill needs to be passed," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the full committee. He promised "to make sure it gets to the floor" of the House for a vote.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the health subcommittee, also said he would move the bill forward to a markup, which is a session where members discuss and amend bills.

New York and New Jersey lawmakers, who recalled how hard they had to work to pass the bill five years ago, welcomed that support.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), the bill's sponsor, called the hearing Thursday "a fantastic first step."

Though not on the committee, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) came to the hearing and afterward said it showed that backing for the program's extension "is totally bipartisan."

The reauthorization bill aims to make permanent the two programs for the surviving victims of 9/11: a medical program, which was the subject of the hearing, that expires at the end of September, and a compensation program, under House Judiciary Committee oversight, that expires at the end of September 2016.

Through March, the compensation fund had made 4,415 awards ranging from $10,000 to $4.13 million and totaling $1.06 billion.

Maloney said the bill still faces hurdles, including the possibility that some lawmakers might balk at making the programs permanent and prefer setting another expiration date.

Two medical experts involved in the program and two retired New York police officers enrolled in it testified about its benefits -- and warned of disaster it if has to close.

"It would be a nightmare for me personally. It would be a nightmare for our patients," said Dr. John Howard, the medical program's administrator.

The program both monitors people for ailments related to the 9/11 aftermath and provides care and direction for those who become ill.

Of the 71,942 people enrolled in it last year, 20,883 received treatment for asthma, respiratory disorders, cancer and other ailments from toxic exposures, and 28,059 received evaluations and monitoring, Howard said.

Howley, of New Jersey, said he suffered many ill effects, including lymph node cancer. Without the medical evaluation and care he received under the program, he said, "I wouldn't be here, sitting here."