When it comes to helping those with 9/11-related illnesses, pleas for adequate funding must be written again and again. That's because federal officials are still filling the World Trade Center Health Program's budget holes piecemeal.
Month after month, year after year, 9/11 first responders and other survivors and the advocates who support them struggle to make sure the health program is on solid financial footing. The program covers those who breathed the toxic dust in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and are now suffering from or at risk of cancers and other illnesses.
In the latest chapter, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives agreed to include $676 million for the World Trade Center Health Program in this year's National Defense Authorization Act. The money helps close a gap — for now. It's particularly crucial in light of the program's increasing costs due to inflation and the constantly compounding health needs of 9/11 survivors and responders. The effort also rightly expanded the program to include members of the military who responded to the Pentagon attack and to the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps more importantly, the inclusion of the health program in the annual defense authorization highlighted the efforts of Long Island's three congressional representatives — Anthony D'Esposito, Andrew Garbarino and Nick LaLota. Garbarino, like his predecessor former Rep. Peter King, took the lead on the issue, along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The three local representatives wisely made 9/11 health care funding a pivotal issue in their votes during the race for House speaker — and secured pledges of support from their ultimate choice, Mike Johnson. Johnson, whose father was a firefighter critically burned in the line of duty, kept his promise.
At a time when promises in Congress often mean little, it's refreshing to see leadership on such a critical issue emerge — and hold. Long Island's delegation deserves credit for prioritizing 9/11 health funding, as does Johnson for shepherding it through a rocky negotiation.
But the defense authorization only goes so far. The uncertainty of inflation and rising health care costs makes it hard to predict when funding will again start to run dry. Even as Congress secured $676 million to help fill the gap, advocates predict that inflation will add another $200 million in costs.
The formula behind the World Trade Center Health Program needs to be fixed to provide a permanent funding stream, meet inflation, and end the recurring battles.
After constantly asking for help, 9/11 first responders and others who spent months breathing in the horrid dust that has destroyed so many lives finally received the gift of temporary financial relief. But a real gift would be in never having to ask again.
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.