A U.S. program that provides funding to cover medical and other costs of 9/11 first responders and survivors is running out of money. We join the call from New York’s senators, congressmen and first responders and survivor advocates from around the country, for federal legislators to pass a bill filling in gaps in benefits and authorizing permanent funding of this vital source of aid. Just saying “never forget” is not enough. We need to support 9/11 first responders and survivors and demand these heroes get the assistance they deserve.

New York City’s suburbs, including communities like ours, count thousands of 9/11 survivors among their ranks. They are policemen and firemen who rushed to the scene of the burning twin towers, or aided rescue and recovery efforts in the days following. They are office workers who were employed at the time of the 2001 World Trade Center attack, or in the years immediately following, by private companies located on Wall Street and in other sections of lower Manhattan below Canal Street. Both groups suffered exposure to toxic fumes, dust and debris that have been linked to lung disease, cancers and other potentially fatal illnesses.

Approximately 45,000 first responders and survivors live with 9/11-related medical conditions, according to New York officials. More than 10,000 of those victims are battling rare, 9/11-related cancers. The number of 9/11-related cases keeps rising, as more men and women who worked downtown or aided in rescue efforts fall ill.

We know some of these 9/11 survivors, and you probably do, too. Some continue to battle serious health issues. Others have fought through their illnesses — which in many cases surfaced a decade or more after the towers fell — and continue to live with the uncertainty of possible recurrence. All shoulder ongoing medical treatment and monitoring, and lingering effects of mental stress.

Due to the rising number of claims, on Feb. 15, Justice Department officials announced the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is dwindling quickly and cuts in victim benefits will be needed to keep it afloat.

Congress enacted the original law that created the fund in 2011 and reauthorized it in 2015, with an expiration date of 2020. Now, more than $5 billion of the original $7.3 billion fund has been spent ahead of next year’s deadline. Officials overseeing the fund announced massive cuts in benefits — as much as 70 percent for new fund claims filed after Feb. 1 — will take place to keep the fund solvent unless Congress acts.

According to the World Trade Center Health Program, the health care component of the original 2011 law that created the fund, more than 74,000 first responders have enrolled in the WTC Health Program as of December 2018; nearly 19,000 victims have done the same. According to the Uniformed Firefighters Association, nearly half of the 15,000 FDNY firefighters, officers and medics who worked on 9/11 — and survived — got sick from their exposure to toxins flying around the Trade Center site.

The proposal before Congress would maintain the 2015 provision that extends the fund through 2090. However, it also removes a cap on how much money victims would receive, which could set the stage for a political fight.

“It seems unconscionable to me that some 17-plus years after the horrific attack on 9/11, the heroes from that fateful day and their families are still forced to endure needless uncertainty about their future care,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, whose 16th Congressional District includes Scarsdale.

Nita Lowey of the 17th Congressional District, which includes part of our readership area, joined Engel as co-sponsor of the bill to reauthorize the so-called Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act. 

On Feb. 25, New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer stood alongside House members including Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, also a co-sponsor, and longtime 9/11 victims activist Jon Stewart, to voice support for the bill that would fund the program through 2090.

“This program already exists,” Stewart said in Washington, D.C. “It’s like a Starbucks gift card, we’re just looking to get a little more money on it.”

Dozens of UFA members also traveled to Washington to lean on lawmakers to sign onto the bill that will extend the fund. Almost every state has a 9/11 survivor suffering an illness, according to the firefighters union. UFA President Gerard Fitzgerald recently told The Daily News, “Every politician has someone in their district who is associated with 9/11, so we want 464 ‘yes’ votes on this.” So do we.

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