Congress has passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, paving the way for health care and compensation for New Yorkers who have been sickened by the dust from World Trade Center attacks.
The bill has been in the works for years, pushed by New York politicians, fire fighters and police officers, but had stalled in the Senate earlier this month. After its sponsors agreed to scale down the cost of the bill considerably, from the $7.4 billion price tag approved by the House of Representatives in September, to $4.2 billion, it passed quickly.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate paused during its floor debate on the START nuclear arms treaty to take a voice vote on the Zadroga bill. The measure passed unanimously.
“All those in favor say aye. All those opposed no,” said Vice President Joseph Biden, in his capacity as president of the Senate. “The ayes have it, appear to have it -- and the ayes do have it, the bill is passed.” The House approved the bill later on Wednesday.
"This is the day we have all been waiting for," said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. "Our Christmas miracle has arrived!"
The bill will continue to provide health care and monitoring for tens of thousands of first-responders, construction workers and Lower Manhattan residents who were exposed to World Trade Center dust in the weeks following the attacks.
But instead of continuing that monitoring effort for 10 years, the scaled-back bill provides only enough funding to last for five years. That’s still an advantage over the present system, which mandates federal funding for the effort be renewed on a year-by-year basis.
Jill Fenwick, from Staten Island, was caught in a dust plume caused by the collapse of the towers on 9/11, and continued to work downtown afterwards. She said she struggles with a range of chronic illnesses. "I'm happy that the bill passed because it gives us a reprieve, I guess for five years. I'm not happy that many of the people who may have the same diseases as I do are already dead," she said. "It gives one pause."
The bill also sets up a Victims Compensation Fund that will give monetary awards for to emergency workers and others who fall ill and lose wages as a result of exposure to the dust and to their families in case of death. The fund will be similar to one set up for people who were killed by the actual attacks.
In the original House version of the bill, the Victims Compensation Fund was to remain open until 2031, but now it will last only five years and close permanently in 2016.
“We did not get everything that we wanted, but always remember legislation is the art of compromise,” Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said after the vote. “This is $4.3 billion better than nothing."
Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, said the bill is a big victory. "A five-year extension was not what we were looking for but it is certainly a huge step in the right direction, and what needed to get done now," he said.