By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN — A bill that would expand health benefits for people with 9/11-related illnesses and injuries passed a House committee on Tuesday evening after a contentious and prolonged debate.
If the measure becomes law it would guarantee the long-term operations of health care programs set up years ago for first responders and residents who were hurt or became ill in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
"The attacks of September 11th were an attack on this nation, and it’s only fitting that we as a nation take care of those who survived the attacks, and those who risked their lives to save others," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement after the bill passed committee.
The mayor also thanked the bill's House sponsors, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler.
"The Zadroga Act just cleared its toughest hurdle so far, to the relief of thousands of Americans who lost their health because of 9/11 and desperately need help,” Maloney said in a statement. “The New York-area Congressional delegation put in long hours to make this victory happen."
New York lawmakers say the city's separate $657 million settlement with ailing 9/11 first responders doesn't cover all of their needs.
The bill’s formal title is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, named for a New York City police detective who died after inhaling toxic World Trade Center dust.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee took up the bill Tuesday morning, with breaks to conduct business on the House floor.
Republicans opponents of the bill argued that the measure would commit the federal government to a multi-billion spending program at a time of ballooning federal deficits. New York City would pick up a small portion of the $5 billion health-care tab.
“We’re not opposed to an adequate compensation and treatment scheme for first responders and people who live in the area of the collapsed towers,” Rep. Joe Barton of Texas said during debate earlier in the day. “We are opposed to creation of an entitlement program.”
The Republicans suggested allocating $150 million a year to the program, and putting it up for review every year.
Democrats rejected that as insufficient.
New York Rep. Anthony Weiner accused the Republicans of speaking out of both sides of their mouths. “If you don’t’ want the victims to get the money…just say it,” he said.
But Democrats agreed to add controls over administration of the program, assurances that New York City would pay its share of the bill and a “sunset” provision that ends the program after 10 years.
They also increased the number of people allowed to the health-care program from about 30,000 to 50,000.
The bill passed about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night.