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Funding for 9/11 health program is left out of federal omnibus bill

An American flag at ground zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Mark Lennihan
An American flag at ground zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Congress will not consider additional funding for the World Trade Center Health Program, which has helped thousands of first responders access medical treatment for exposure to toxic debris after the September 11 terror attacks.

Since 2010, the program has helped fund the treatment of respiratory illness for first responders who were exposed to toxic debris from 9/11.

Attorney Michael Barasch, who has helped hundreds of survivors access these funds, said Congress has failed the 9/11 community.

“Congress did the right thing in 2011 by […] creating this health program. And now because of an explosion of cancers, and so many people dying, it’s running out of money,” Barasch said. “So you know, it's just like another promise broken to the 9/11 community. It's infuriating.”

The program covers the lifespan of all people exposed, including responders and survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Shanksville crash site.

While the program was reauthorized in 2015 and extended through 2090 with bipartisan support, it is estimated to be too cash-strapped to take on any new claims after October 2024.

Over 120,000 first responders and survivors have enrolled into the program, but over 50,000 children and young educators, who are now adults, are expected to need assistance over the next decade.

“I am deeply disappointed that my bipartisan bill to close the funding gap in the World Trade Center Health Program did not make it into this funding package,” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said in a statement. “This program was established and reauthorized with bipartisan support—the opposition it now faces is unconscionable.”

“We have never failed our 9/11 heroes and we don’t intend to start now,” she said, referring to the Senate leadership.

Gillibrand spoke with Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-NY) on Tuesday to discuss moving forward legislation next year to fully fund the program.

Still, Garbarino called the omission from the omnibus bill “is a slap in the face for 9/11 heroes and survivors.”

“[Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer repeatedly promised that 9/11 healthcare would be prioritized in the Senate this year and now, at the eleventh hour, he has pulled the rug out from under 9/11 families,” he said. “They deserve better than to have been lied to by Democrat leadership for the last two years while their access to healthcare hangs in the balance.”

Without an additional $3.6 billion to fully fund the program, Barasch expects the first responders and survivors that he represents to experience longer waits for appointments and delays in coverage from the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.

“[The program] is going to be on life support, which is such a bad thing for the 9/11 community,” Barasch said. “Because if you're a doctor or a nurse, and you know that there's not enough funding past 2024, you're going to start looking for a new job.”

“I don't blame you,” he added, acknowledging the specialized doctors and medical researchers affiliated with the program who may choose to leave instead of waiting around for two years of uncertainty and job insecurity. “But that means we're going to lose the best and most experienced people in the medical world, who currently take care of the 9/11 community.”

The Senate is expected to pass the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package on Thursday, leaving the House to take it on Friday before recess for the rest of the year.

It’s the best chance for Democrats to get measures passed, including reforms to safeguard elections, expand the federal child tax credit, and protect kids from harmful social media content, before losing control of the House next year.

Funding for several programs across the country are also in jeopardy. This includes new housing initiatives for Connecticut, New York and elsewhere would be canceled, federal eviction prevention programs would shut down, COVID-19, the flu and other public health efforts would lose support, heating for low-income residents will become more difficult this winter as negotiations continue.

If the omnibus deal is rejected, the federal government will either continue using the 2022 budget or shut down.

“Continuing the government at the present levels of funding means that wasteful programs can’t be cut, new initiatives can’t be started, existing programs can’t be plussed up, and the failure to fund this budget will have a direct and immediate impact on Connecticut,” U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.
Eric Warner is a news fellow at WSHU.