“You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t,” declared a frail Luis Alvarez, a former New York City Police Department detective and 9/11 first responder.
Alvarez was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on June 11 to advocate for ongoing health care funding for those who have become ill after working on or around ground zero. Days later, Alvarez continued to champion this cause as he told a New York media outlet, “My ultimate goal, legacy, to have this bill passed so first responders have the coverage they need.”
Alvarez died Saturday in hospice at the age of 53 from the cancer linked to his work at ground zero. And now it’s time for Congress, and especially GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to honor Alvarez by permanently funding the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to support first responders and others who are battling sickness after working at ground zero.
Though it’s been almost 18 years since that fateful day, many first responders are still suffering – and worse yet, some of them, like Alvarez – are dying from their illnesses. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics and others, including construction workers who worked at ground zero after the 9/11 attacks, were exposed to “pulverized dust” that was loaded with cement, asbestos, lead, glass fibers and other toxic chemicals.
The result? According to the CDC’s World Trade Center Health Program, more than 30,000 of those who worked on the site developed diseases of the respiratory or digestive tracts. Of those, 705 have died. And almost 9,000 first responders have developed cancer, with more than 600 dying to date. Stunning as it sounds, experts predict that more Americans will die from diseases contracted while working at ground zero site than the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11.
Yet despite the heroism and bravery of the countless men and women who risked their lives on 9/11, who searched for bodies in the days that followed and worked at ground zero afterward, the funding for their medical ailments is at risk. In February, the administrator of the 9/11 fund announced he was running out of federal funds, and as a result, future payments for medical care would need to be cut by 50 to 70%.
That led Alvarez, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart and others to testify before the Judiciary Committee, calling for funding to be guaranteed through 2090. There, Alvarez received a standing ovation for his words, and the very next day the Judiciary Committee approved the measure unanimously. It’s expected to easily be approved by the Democrat-controlled House when it comes up for a vote.
But things are not as clear in the GOP-controlled Senate, thanks to McConnell. As Jon Stewart stated after the bill passed the House committee, McConnell “has always held out until the last minute, and only then after intense lobbying and public shaming has he even deigned to move on it.” (In response, McConnell countered, “We’ve always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again.”)
This past Tuesday, McConnell met with a group of retired police officers and firefighters. They gave the majority leader Alvarez’s detective’s badge as Alvarez then lay fighting for his life in a hospice. At the meeting, McConnell finally agreed to hold a vote on the proposed extension, but with no set deadline, stating, “We want to try to deal with (the legislation) before the August recess.”
And as the New York Daily News reported, McConnell told the group that he refused to promise the bill he takes up in the Senate would be as generous as the House bill. He also refused to commit to holding a standalone vote (a simple yes/no vote on the proposal), as the activists were pushing for.
But McConnell should never have said either of those things. First, McConnell should not simply “try” to bring this up for a vote. He alone controls the Senate schedule, so he should guarantee it will be brought to a vote in July.
Second, not committing to holding a vote on a standalone bill indicates that McConnell is likely contemplating playing politics with the funding measure, possibly making it part of a bill that Democrats might not want to support. McConnell was accused by critics of doing just that in 2015, when he attempted to tie the 9/11 victims fund bill to ending a four-decade long ban on oil exports – a charge McConnell denies.
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And McConnell’s potential refusal to pass the House bill because it could cost too much is outrageous. The Trump-Republican Party massive tax cut in 2017 – that cut the corporate tax rate and primarily helped the wealthy – will add $1.9 trillion to our deficit over the next decade, per the Congressional Budget Office. In contrast, the funding for the 9/11 victims in 2015 was $7.3 billion, of which a little over $5 billion has been spent. (Congress is still awaiting a projection from the CBO on the future costs of the fund.)
Bottom line: McConnell should not play politics with the health care of those who worked at ground zero. Instead, he should honor Alvarez by holding a standalone vote on the House version of the funding bill in July. Anything less is an insult to all who have died or are still fighting medical ailments caused by their courageous work.