The Senate passed a bill today covering the cost of medical care of 9/11 first responders, who are now suffering from long-term or crippling illnesses after inhaling toxic fumes and smoke during their rescue work at ground zero.
Led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Charles Schumer (D-New York), the Senate reached a compromise with Republicans, who were concerned over the initial cost of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would have provided $7.4 billion over ten years. Today’s approved legislation will provide $4.3 billion over five years.
“The Christmas Miracle we’ve been looking for has arrived,” Gillibrand and Schumer said in a statement. “Over the last 24 hours, our Republican colleagues have negotiated in good-faith to forge a workable final package that will protect the health of the men and women who selflessly answered our nation’s call in her hour of greatest need … This has been a long process, but we are now on the cusp of the victory these heroes deserve.”
Of the $4.3 billion total allotted, $1.5 billion will fund health benefits, while $2.7 will go to compensation.
The final bill also changes a few key provisions. According to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), who helped negotiate the bill after initially serving as one of its most vocal opponents, the Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) will close permanently after five years, while the original bill kept the VCF open through 2031. In keeping with the earlier versions of the bill, however, claimants who are rejected from VCF will not be able to file a lawsuit for compensation or medical care.
The bill will also place a cap on attorneys’ fees at 10 percent of the total awarded to the claimants, and will allow the legislation’s special master to reduce excessive attorney fees.
Coburn released a statement today lauding the bill’s fiscal changes, “I’m pleased the sponsors of this bill agreed to lower costs dramatically, offset the bill, sunset key provisions and take steps to prevent fraud,” Coburn stated. “Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity.”
The House will vote on the bill this afternoon.