WASHINGTON — A $3.6 billion measure to fully fund the World Trade Center Health Program over the next decade hangs in the balance as lawmakers negotiate over the weekend on an omnibus bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
The roughly $1.7 trillion spending package stands as the last chance in this session of Congress to include and pass the health program bill for the bipartisan group led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) after several unsuccessful attempts this year.
“This is our last chance, and this is our best chance. So, I'm optimistic,” Gillibrand told Newsday in a phone call Friday.
With passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, Congress created the World Trade Center Health Program in 2010 and five years later extended to 2090 to help first responders and cleanup workers ailing from exposure to toxic debris at Ground Zero.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The fate of a $3.6 billion measure to fully fund the World Trade Center Health Program over the next decade is tied to negotiations over an omnibus bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year.
- The legislation aims to cover a projected shortfall of more than $3 billion in funding in the health program
- The bill also adds $514 million to enroll in the program responders and survivors of the attacks on the Pentagon and at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash site.
In August 2021, Gillibrand and Maloney introduced the bill to cover a projected shortfall of more than $3 billion in funding caused by inflation and greater participation than projected in the World Trade Center Health Program.
The bill also adds $514 million to enroll in the program responders and survivors of the attacks on the Pentagon and at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash site, after a federal ruling had excluded them.
And it includes $46 million for a study of the impacts on the estimated 35,000 people who were children in the disaster area in lower Manhattan on the day al-Qaida terrorists flew two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers.
But its sponsors have failed to find a pathway to congressional approval for the bill, called the 9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act, even as the number of sponsors has grown from the original 39 to 122 and include 21 House Republicans.
Those sponsors have tried to pass their measure in a stand-alone vote, and by attaching it to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill in 2021, the stymied $2 trillion Build Back Better package and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act — all to no avail.
Gillibrand said putting it into the omnibus spending bill has always been the best pathway.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), two of the three key players in the continuing negotiations on the massive spending bill, both back the 9/11 health center bill.
The third, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), did not respond to a request to his press office for his view of the measure. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is engaged in rounding up votes to become House speaker in January.
“Our goal is to get it included in the omnibus when you're doing year-end negotiations for everything,” Gillibrand said. “I think Senator Schumer believes that's the best leverage point he has.”
Schumer spokesman Angelo Roefaro said in a statement to Newsday, “This issue remain a major priority of Senator Schumer, who has joined Senator Gillibrand in pushing for it.”
On Thursday, Schumer said on the Senate floor, “An omnibus is the most balanced approach because it would contain priorities both sides want to see: funding for Ukraine, the ECA Electoral Count Act, and full implementation of CHIPS and Science, the PACT Act and more.”
Another 9/11-related bill for $3 billion in additional compensation for the children and spouses of 9/11 victims also could be added to the omnibus, though Gillibrand said there is a greater urgency to fund the World Trade Center Health Program.
If Congress does not close the funding gap, Gillibrand said the program will have to stop enrolling new participants starting on Oct. 1, 2024. “And we can expect further cuts to services as well,” she said.
Ben Chevat, executive director of Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act, also expressed optimism about the measure’s passage, saying that “given its broad bipartisan support, we are very hopeful.”
The World Trade Center Health Care Program said on its website that it has enrolled about 120,000 people — including about 84,000 responders and 36,000 survivors as of the end of September.
Meanwhile, left out of the program are an unknown number of responders and survivors of the attack on the Pentagon.
Among them is William Toti, 65, a former U.S. Navy captain who worked at the Pentagon on 9/11 and ran through the smoke and wreckage to evacuate survivors and then led the Navy’s recovery effort that included contact with soot, asbestos and other toxic particulate material.
Toti of Ormond Beach, Florida, told Newsday in an email that the ruling barring from the World Trade Center Health Program and its medical specialists had harmed him and others.
“The fact that they are not tracking the vast majority of those exposed in the Pentagon on 9/11 because we aren’t eligible means they might not have any idea what’s going on with us,” Toti said.
After the Senate on Thursday voted 71-19 to approve a weeklong stopgap spending bill that expires on Friday, lawmakers in both chambers said they would aim to finish negotiations on the omnibus by Monday.
The Senate is expected to begin the process of overcoming objections and a filibuster with the aim of passing the omnibus on Thursday. The House would then vote on Friday.