NEW YORK — The failure of President Joe Biden’s ambitious "Build Back Better" funding bill last December also had another casualty — nearly $3 billion meant to plug a looming deficit in the World Trade Center Health Program.
Now lawmakers are searching for a new way to advance legislation to fill that hole after a recent briefing to lawmakers by 9/11 health program staff, the Daily News has learned.
If the Build Back Better legislation had passed, it would have forestalled what could be a grim outlook for the health program and its 117,000 members, and the possibility that the program would have to start considering cuts or limiting access.
When the 9/11 health law was made permanent in 2015, its funding was based on expected future costs. But enrollment in the program surged and illnesses worsened, with some 25,000 cases of cancer among first responders and survivors.
In 2021, the Bipartisan 9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act was introduced by Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, both New York Democrats, and Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in the Senate. In the original bill, the amount needed to fund the financial shortfall for the health program through 2031 was $2.86 billion. Because of the delay in funding, the amount required to get through 2032 is just over $3 billion.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined to comment on specifics, saying analysts are still crunching the numbers. “Because deliberations are still ongoing, the CDC cannot provide an estimate of when action would need to be taken,” spokeswoman Christina Spring said.
Based on current funding, the program would essentially have to bar any new sick responders or victims by October 2024 — and warn people by next year. In short, if someone discovered they had 9/11-linked cancer after that date, they would be on their own, financially speaking.
Long Island Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., suggested Democrats should have pushed a stand-alone bill through to deal with the problem, such as one he co-sponsored, eliminating the uncertainty.
“Fully funding this program has bipartisan support, and yet Democrats tried to pass it through a highly divisive and partisan reconciliation process which ultimately failed,” Garbarino said. “Since then, the majority has been inexplicably dragging its feet on moving this crucial legislation forward. 9/11 first responders and survivors deserve to have certainty about their continued access to care for 9/11-related health conditions.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, had succeeded in getting the money added to the Build Back Better plan when it seemed like a good bet to pass. His office could not immediately provide an update on where the funding stands.
Democrats insisted they would push it through regardless of how it’s passed.
“We expect that in a revised Senate bill that funding would remain, but we are looking for other ways to get this done to make sure these injured 9/11 responders and survivors continue to get the medical treatment they need and deserve,” said Maloney. “I am going to keep working on this to get this done.”
The political landscape is adding urgency to the situation as most political analysts believe the GOP will likely take over the House in the midterm election this November.
“We should not have to have these men and women come back to Washington and walk the halls of Congress as they have repeatedly done to make sure that Congress does its job,” Maloney said.
For now, it’s on Democrats to act.
“Congressional Democrats should treat this issue with the urgency it deserves and bring legislation to address the funding shortfall for a vote immediately,” Garbarino said.
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