WASHINGTON — The chronically ill heroes of 9/11 and their families received a long-overdue lifetime of health benefits Friday after a contentious congressional fight.
The House and Senate both voted to extend the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — giving coverage to those afflicted with Ground Zero-related health woes for the next 75 years.
“It’s a very good day,” said Joseph Zadroga (inset below), whose detective son James died in January 2006 from health woes caused by his time in toxic lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attack.
“I always say it’s not a done deal until it’s a done deal. There were some bumps in the road, but we had some great support this time.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who helped boost the effort, cited the efforts of the Daily News in pushing to help the heroic first responders.
“The Daily News literally made the difference,” said Gillibrand. “The paper did so much work from the beginning when we were doing this in 2010, editorializing and covering this, really speaking truth to power and shaming people who needed to be.”
Maloney praised The News for “constantly spotlighting the stories of responders and survivors, and the inaction of our Congress.”
In addition to extending the health care program for first responders and others suffering lingering 9/11 health issues, Congress renewed the Victims Compensation Fund for another five years to aid first responders too sick to work and their families.
“After 15 years, the heroes and survivors of 9/11 will know that their health care is permanent and their compensation is full,” said Maloney (D-Manhattan), who fought for more than a decade to create the program — and extend its length.
Mayor de Blasio — whose office took the photos of police and firefighters holding “Thank you” cards to Congress featured on The News’ front page — called it a “long overdue victory for the 72,000 brave men and women around the country who rely on these programs.”
The number of city police officers and firefighters killed by 9/11-related illnesses stands at more than 200, with roughly 33,000 responders and survivors battling an assortment of ailments.
Many suffer from chronic ailments like asthma, pulmonary disease and gastric reflux, while medical researchers have identified more than 50 types of cancer linked to toxins from the twin towers.
James Zadroga, the 34-year-old father of a 4-year-old girl, spent close to 500 hours sifting through the ruins of the World Trade Center, inhaling a lethal mix of asbestos, pulverized cement and hazardous chemicals.
“The problem with Jimmy was nobody knew what was going on,” said his dad. “Now we can move forward. I always had high hopes.”
Reauthorization of the Zadroga Act took years, with first responders making hundreds of trips to the Capitol to guilt Congress into doing its job.
The programs were in danger of disappearing after Congress whiffed on a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize the funding.
“This is a very important moment for all of us,” said a teary-eyed Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) during a news conference.
“All my gratitude goes to the first responders,” she continued in a quavering voice. “This is my proudest day in Washington.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) echoed her sentiments: “I can finally say I’m proud of my country . . . Our heroes deserve never to worry that their health care will disappear, or that their families will struggle because of 9/11.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said those who rushed to the towers “will know that if they get sick because of their bravery, the federal government will be there for them the way they were there for us.”
The total package to keep the government funded — called the omnibus — passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House by a vote of 316-113. The Senate approved the measure by a 65-33 vote.
President Obama was expected to sign the bill into law.