Health Care for 9/11 Workers? Not so Fast

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Anthony DePalma, writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University and the author of City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11, talks about the James Zadroga bill to compensate those harmed by the 9/11 dust cloud.

On the surface, passing a bill that would provide health benefits to 9/11 rescue workers is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, nothing comes easy in Washington these days.

The Zadroga Act would compensate and treat those who lived or worked in the dust following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. That dust was full of toxic chemicals, exposure to which has been linked to an array of respiratory illnesses, cancers, and death for many responders. But the cloud engulfed most of lower Manhattan, and it wasn't just emergency personnel who were breathing the dangerous air. That's one of the complicating factors in getting this bill passed, according to Anthony DePalma.

The Congressional Budget Office took a look at this, and because the scope of the Zadroga Act is so large, potentially 650,000 people would be covered by it. They don't expect that many people to actually come forward, but if you think about anyone who was down there on that day, anyone who worked, cleaners, students, people who lived there in Brooklyn and New York, the whole universe of it is 650,000 people.

Ensuring coverage for all those people contributes to the bill's 120-page length. It also contributes to Congressional gridlock, as extending benefits to a larger pool of people means pledging more federal dollars amidst a recession. Even though Democrats only need to secure one more Republican vote to earn the bill a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, DePalma says that will be a struggle. The GOP has made it clear that they won't support any Democrat-supported spending measures, no matter how popular, unless they are cost-neutral. 

Most recently, Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand, who've been working hard to get this passed, have proposed a whole bunch of options, sort of a menu list, and told Republicans to pick and choose from this and we'll make up the money in some other way. But given the atmosphere in Washington at this time, I think Republicans are going to be reluctant to go along with anything that looks like a tax increase or might cost any jobs.

The economic recovery and the current round of deficit hawkishness is just a little more than two years old. September 11th happened almost a decade ago. So why are we focusing on this issue now, when first responders could have used these benefits ages ago and it's least expedient politically to hand them out now? DePalma chalks it up to a lack of research on the effects of the dust and other general foot-dragging over the last decade.

The Bush administration really never came around and fully embraced the idea that that dust was harmful. For years they said it wasn't. Then, when the evidence started to present itself, they provided funding for the monitoring and treatment program, but only year to year, which made it impossible to do a really vigorous program, and also impossible to do the kind of research that would come up with answers.

Ultimately, DePalma said that the bill's chances depend upon the Democrats' ability to sell their case. A certain anniversary may be the perfect opportunity to make that final push.

They're making a pretty hard pitch using the moral-suasion and patriotic case that today, December 7the, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the moral case for helping these people is so strong that they might be able to squeeze it through. If they don't, I think there's a chance to come back to it next time, but probably not in the shape that it's in this way.

» Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show.