Updated on Dec. 11, 2015 at 1:20 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, flanked by police and firefighters, pushed Congress on Thursday to keep dollars flowing to a health program for first responders and others who got sick working in the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bratton noted that the House and Senate were holding hearings on the evolving terrorist threat to the United States, but the country still hadn’t paid its debt to the first responders of 9/11.
“That is the ultimate irony,” Bratton said, standing in a Senate office building rotunda decorated with emotive artwork of first responders, including some who became ill and died. “It just defies logic.”
The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at ground zero, first became law in 2010. The health benefits expired this fall.
“That first bill came with an expiration date” said NYPD Deputy Inspector Roy Richter. “But the illnesses that our members are dealing with didn’t have an expiration date.”
Federal officials say the fund will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money does not come.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program, more than 70,000 people have enrolled, including more than 4,000 with cancer.
Lawmakers say they are close to a deal, but are looking for a way to pay for the legislation, which could cost more than $8 billion. They are aiming to attach it to a year-end spending bill expected to be released next week or a package of tax breaks for businesses.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said supporters of the legislation have 66 votes in the Senate and 259 in the House — more than enough to pass both chambers.
“We have the votes. The only thing standing in our way is some of the Republican leadership who act like they are in no rush to pass this bill,” he said.
Schumer said the only thing holding the bill up is politics, 1010 WINS’ Steve Kastenbaum reported.
“The lives of our first responders is not a bargaining chip and can never be,” Schumer said. “You don’t trade it.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said “the lack of urgency, the lack of empathy, is shocking.”
Supporters of the legislation have reason to be optimistic.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told Republicans Thursday: “You guys in the Northeast worried about the 9/11 package, that’s going to be taken care of.”
In a statement, Republican Congressman Dan Donovan of Staten Island said he was told by Ryan that the Zadroga Act “is in the large spending bill that will pass next week.”
“We spent months fighting side-by-side with American heroes – with men and women who shouldn’t have to shoulder this burden because they are already fighting for their lives – to make our case,” he said. “I’ve said all along that on the merits, we will win.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was pleased by Ryan’s remark, but said, “It’s not done until it’s done.”
She said the legislation would include $3.5 billion for medical monitoring and treatment of first responders and $4.6 billion for a compensation fund for victims. The health care benefits would expire in 2090, Maloney said, making the program essentially permanent as advocates had sought. The compensation program would expire in 2021.
NYPD officer John Ryan, 42, hopes the legislation passes before the end of the year. He was at ground zero shortly after the second tower fell. Following 9/11, he helped with rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center.
In October 2013, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer returned following a surgery, but it has been in remission since July. He currently works full time, but on restricted status, doing desk duty in Staten Island.
“I worry. I have another CAT scan coming up in March,” Ryan said. “I think my main insurance should cover it, but I hope the Zadroga bill gets passed for myself and so many other people.”
Steven Padula is a forensic detective who worked at ground zero for months. If the program closes, he’d have to pay for his medications, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.
“That would be a significant out-of-pocket expense for me,” he said.
“We, if the bill isn’t funded, we would essentially have to go out of business,” said Michael Crane.
Crane is the program’s medical director. He said it’s not just the treatment that’s at stake, but also the research.
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