First responders exhale as 9/11 Victims Fund extended

Firefighters walking over the ruins of the World Trade Center through clouds of dust and smoke at Ground Zero in October 2001. (AP Photo/Stan Honda, Pool, File)

BY GABE HERMAN | The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund has been permanently funded by the federal government, after money began to dwindle earlier this year and advocates went to Congress to pressure lawmakers.

The bill’s full name — The Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — honors three first responders who died from 9/11-related illnesses. It was officially signed into law by President Trump on July 29.

The previous deadline to file claims with the V.C.F. was Dec. 18, 2020, but the bill now extends that through Oct. 1, 2090. It’s estimated the fund’s extension will cost around $10 billion over the next 1o years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

This past February, the head of the V.C.F., Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya, said that payouts for claims would be cut by as much as 70 percent because of a shortfall in funds and an increase in claims.

After the funds were permanently extended on July 29, Bhattacharyya wrote, in a statement, “This is a momentous occasion for the V.C.F. and the 9/11 community, and I am extremely grateful for this show of confidence from Congress and the President. The enactment of this Act is also a testament to the heroic efforts of the responders, survivors and advocates who tirelessly pursued this legislation, and without whom we would not be able to continue the vital work we do.”

The legislation passed the Senate on July 23 by a 97-to-2 vote, with only Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky voting against it. Both Lee and Paul had an amendment to the bill defeated, with the former wanting authorization for only 10 years and the latter wanting spending for the 9/11 fund to be offset by other government cuts.

After the Senate approved the bill, comedian Jon Stewart, who advocated alongside first responders for the funding, said, “We can never repay all that the 9/11 community has done for our country, but we can stop penalizing them. And today is that day they can exhale.”

The former “Daily Show” host added that suffering will continue for 9/11 first responders, but said, “I’m hopeful that today begins the process of being able to heal without the burden of having to advocate.”

Clouds of toxic dust lingered in Lower Manhattan for months after 9/11. (Courtesy N.Y.P.D.)

Before the House passed the bill earlier in July, Stewart spoke passionately before the chamber about the need for funds and chastised many lawmakers for seemingly not caring enough about the issue.

Gravely ill, first responder Luis Alvarez, a retired Bomb Squad detective with the New York Police Department, also addressed Congress. He died less than three weeks later, at age 53, from cancer linked to his time at Ground Zero. His name was added to the bill’s title.

“Passing this legislation, there’s no joy, there’s no comfort,” said first responder and advocate John Feal after the Senate’s vote on July 23. “Yes, I cried with Jon [Stewart], but that was to exhale, that was to get 18 years of pain and suffering out.”

Feal noted he wasn’t going to miss anything about Washington, D.C.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we don’t have to come back.”

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