Here we are again.
Twenty years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, we’re still trying to make sure first responders and other survivors get the health care and compensation they need and deserve. The World Trade Center Health Program could run out of money.
Six years ago, when the program finally was made permanent, experts had to estimate how much money would be needed and how many people would need help. But now, a funding gap has emerged. A new federal bill would authorize a $7.3 billion increase in funding through 2031, and a 5% annual increase after that, to close that hole and, advocates hope, assure the program is fully funded going forward.
The heart-wrenching reasons for the hole make it all the more important that Congress authorize the new funding. Start with the sheer gain in the number of people still finding their way into the program. More than 80,000 first responders, and nearly 30,000 other survivors, are now enrolled.
Beyond that, there also have been increases in the number of illnesses covered by the health program and in the complications that come with so many of them, likely with more still to come. Most recently, members of Congress asked the program to add uterine cancer to that mix, noting rightly that fewer women were among the first responders but that their needs must be met. And medical costs continue to soar at rates higher than anticipated.
The new legislation also provides a chance for new research focused on the 35,000 children of 9/11 — those who lived in the area, or who were in schools or day care settings near the towers when the attacks occurred. As those children ran for their lives, they were breathing the toxins that now could put their lives at risk. A study of the physical and psychological impact on that generation would be helpful.
New York’s congressional delegation, yet again, is coalescing behind the legislation that would fix the program. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is taking the lead, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also supports the effort. Importantly, Rep. Andrew Garbarino is a co-sponsor of the bill, taking the mantle from predecessor Rep. Pete King, who made this a signature issue.
Now as before, the bill, which may end up in the reconciliation process, needs support from beyond the region. And while the program won’t run out of money immediately, now is the time to fix it so 9/11 survivors don’t face a crisis requiring them to once again have to traipse through the halls of Congress begging for help.
Sept. 11 was not a New York tragedy; it was a national tragedy. Taking care of the first responders and other survivors is not just a New York duty, it’s a national one.
For all of them, Congress must act.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.