First responders push for extension of 9/11 Zadroga Act benefits in DC

NEW YORK (WABC) -- There was an emotional plea in Washington, DC, Thursday from dozens of first responders, police and firefighters who are now battling illnesses related to their time at ground zero after the September 11th attacks.

The government set money aside to help with their healthcare as part of the Zadroga Act, but that money is running out.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act seeks to extend these programs for an additional 25 years, and the odds are good that Congress will likely authorize funding for the project indefinitely after not one committee person -- Democrat or Republican -- spoke against it.

"It's more and more members are getting sick," retired Battalion Chief Robert Norcross said. "Young fellows who came on right around that time, 20 years old, now they're 35 years old and they're getting cancer."

In 2007, police officer David Howley got neck and throat cancer, and he suffered two strokes. Doctors say it's because of his work at ground zero.

"I've only been cancer-free for a little over a year," he said. "I could easily, and if wasn't for this lady right here, I wouldn't be here at all. So to end this program, people are going to die."

Dr. John Howard, the administrator of the World Trade Center Health Program, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that extending the law would help clinicians treat victims, and allow administrators to better plan patient care. He pointed out that there are affected individuals in 429 of the 435 congressional districts.

"It's stressful to be told on a year-to-year basis that your care might be taken away," Howard said. "From the administrative perspective, it's stressful because we have to constantly prepare for when this may end."

Proponents of the law are seeking its permanent extension in part because some illnesses may not manifest until years later, after the statute of limitations for worker's compensation or certain state laws may have run out.

The law, which is set to expire in October 2015, established the World Trade Center Health Program to provide medical monitoring and treatment for first responders affected by Sept. 11-related illnesses. It also reactivated the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which is set to expire in October 2016. It will cost about $400 million annually to keep it going

"I see every day, to this day, people have rare lung diseases, respiratory illnesses, blood cancers," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said. "So this is something that's absolutely necessary to continue."

Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-New York, said the law is "more than likely" to be reauthorized. She said the permanence of the law is critical because of the children who may be affected by the delay and persistence of certain illnesses.

"The heavy lifting is done," Clarke said. "We're building a case for why (a permanent law) is a necessity."

The law is named after a New York police officer who participated in rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He died in 2006 from respiratory failure that was said to be related to his Sept. 11 service.

Nearly 15 years later, dozens of firefighters have died and hundreds more are seriously ill with health problems. Howard said there have been rare cancers and chronic health problems found in some victims.

Without the funding provided by the Zadroga Act, research on these illnesses would cease, Howard said.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are introducing the same bill in the Senate.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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