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‘Too many funerals’

The long, complicated battle to fund healthcare for 9/11 first responders may soon be nearing an end

‘Too many funerals’

Jon Stewart speaks at a hearing on the 9/11 Victims fund before the Judiciary subcommittee on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019. (Stefani Reynolds/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

This past spring, a new memorial finally opened at Ground Zero. Six rough-edged granite monoliths, weighing up to 18 tons and inlaid with World Trade Center steel, flank a path near the South Pool. They honor the unsung fallen of 9/11: those first responders who contracted cancer, heart conditions, or scarring of their lungs from dangerous debris at the site of the terror attacks.

And these days at Memorial Sloan Kettering, New York’s prime cancer hospital, it’s easy to find 9/11 first responders waiting for their chemotherapy appointments. They share stories of years of medical visits as they wait. 

But it’s taken almost two decades to secure funding for those surviving with such illnesses. Congress created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) in 2011 to support 9/11 survivors and responders who were at the sites after the attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York. Congress renewed the fund in 2015 amid budget fights, but it is now running out of money due to an unpredicted increase in claims. 

First responders have relied on the long-term high-profile support of comedian Jon Stewart, a New York native who has repeatedly shamed lawmakers into starting and then continuing the fund. At a hearing on June 11, Stewart seemed to press his case again successfully—the funding appears likely to continue, though claims have outstripped the budget as the long-term health effects are presenting themselves. Deaths from illnesses related to the sites may soon overtake the 2,997 deaths directly caused by the attacks.

“We’ve been to too many funerals,” said Stewart. Stewart also refuted any claims that 9/11 is a local issue, removing federal responsibility for the first responders. “Al Qaeda didn’t shout ‘Death to Tribeca.’ They attacked America.”

Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD bomb squad officer, testified at the meeting 24 hours before his 69th chemo treatment for 9/11 related liver cancer. “I should not be here with you, but you made me come,” Alvarez said. “This fund is not a ticket to paradise. It is there to provide for our families when we can’t. Nothing more.”

Stewart and other advocates urged Congress to renew the VCF until 2090 with unlimited funding to fully satisfy growing claims. As of May 31, the VCF had given about $5.2 billion to 22,484 claims. Special head of the VCF Rupa Bhattacharyya said the fund has not documented a single case of fraud in a paid claim.

But cancer diagnoses linked to 9/11 exposure have contributed to an unpredicted increase in claims filed with the VCF. To meet the extra claims and stay within its $7.3 billion budget, the fund has slashed compensation for recent claims by 50 percent or more.

Bhattacharyya said her team cannot project how much compensation will cost beyond 2020, because the organization doesn’t know how many people were exposed, and how many of those will develop cancer or other illnesses over coming years.

Stewart contrasted the FDNY’s five-second response time during 9/11 to the empty committee seats at the June 11 hearing. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., assured Stewart that chairs were empty not because of unconcern but because of the small size of the subcommittee and scheduling conflicts for some members. 

“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful,” said Stewart. “Your indifference costs these men and women their most valuable commodity—time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of.” 

The bill’s passage might mean the first responders won’t have to troop down to Washington to lobby Congress: Funding would continue until 2090.

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton