The 14th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just as the 13 that preceded it, was marked by politicians issuing a solemn admonition to “never forget.”
As elected leaders, on such an occasion, that reminder is their role and duty.
But it is also their obligation to translate that rallying cry into policy.
They’ll have that chance in the coming months, when Congress will consider extending two programs that provide health care and other compensation to the thousands of first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and who after working for days, weeks and months in the rubble, dust and toxic air now suffer from debillitating illness.
It is an absolute moral imperative that these programs be extended and funded indefinitely, so that these surviving heroes get the care they need and deserve.
LIVES AT STAKE
There are a lot of lives at stake. Of the 70,000 or so responders and volunteers who worked at the scene in New York, as well as at the Pentagon and the site of the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania, more than 33,000 have developed an illness, and around 3,700 have developed cancer.
One would think that helping these people who gave so selflessly themselves at a time of national emergency would be a foregone conclusion.
But the two programs — the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — were authorized by Congress in 2010 only after contentious debate, and with only a five-year limit.
Portions of each program will start to expire soon, forcing health-care providers to cut back treatment, and leaving many of the first responders and volunteers staring at an uncertain future.
TREATMENT AT RISK
Many sick people would lose care, and compensation payments already awarded to more than 6,000 victims and their family members could be cut in half.
Among those affected would be Charles Diaz, a captain with the New York City Department of Sanitation Police, whose story is emblematic of what happened on Sept. 11, when uniformed personnel of all kinds rushed from the area in and around Manhattan to help out.
“I tried to rescue as many people as I could and then the towers came down,” he told the Staten Island Advance. “I laid there waiting to die, choking on the dust.”
Diaz survived the day, though with a broken arm.
However, he later developed myeloid leukemia, and his treatment costs $20,000 a month, which he could not pay without the federal 9/11 programs.
Each of the thousands who benefit from the programs has a similar story of heroism and sacrifice, then illness, disability and, sometimes, death. And the tally isn’t complete — doctors expect more cases of cancer to emerge in the coming years.
Congress could ameliorate some of that suffering with the passage of the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Reauthorization Act, named after a New York City police officer who died from respiratory disease after spending more than 400 hours aiding in recovery at the World Trade Center site.
The act would extend the World Trade Center Health Program Fund indefinitely, and remove the cap on payments under the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
More than a few on Capitol Hill see this correctly as the right thing to do.
The bill, introduced in April, has 142 co-sponsors in the House and 36 in Senate. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have been on board since spring, while Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District signed on last week.
The cost of the act is sure to receive scrutiny, just as it did five years ago, when the inclusion of tax increases to pay for the programs was criticized by Republicans.
The health program alone could cost an additional $2 billion over the next five years.
But those are costs we as a country are obligated to pay.
Congress should waste no time in reauthorizing and fully funding the programs, and send the clear message that “Never forget” is more than just a slogan.