LOWER MANHATTAN — After Susan Herr managed to escape the 68th floor of Tower 2, as fire and chaos were enveloping the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 — she thought the toughest day of her life had to be behind her.
“But I was wrong,” Herr said, choking back tears. “The hardest day of my life has been going though chemotherapy and radiation at the same time.”
Herr, 51, along with dozens of other ailing 9/11 survivors and first responders who continue to suffer Sept. 11-related illnesses, including cancer and asthma, gathered with elected officials Thursday, to call for an extension to a soon-to-expire federal law that protects their health care benefits.
The $4.3 billion James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care and compensation for those sickened after breathing the toxic dust clouds at Ground Zero, will begin to expire in October, in phases, if Congress does not extend the bill, officials said.
Several New York officials, including representatives Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King, and U.S. Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, have been pushing to make the funds and care available to survivors and first responders permanently available.
“The heroes of 9/11 who fought the flames and inhaled the dust are being forced to wage a battle on two fronts: a fight to survive the illness related to their service at Ground Zero, and a fight on Capitol Hill to ensure the health and compensation they rely on don’t disappear,” Congresswoman Maloney said Thursday, at a press conference at Silverstein Family Park, outside of 7 World Trade Center.
"It’s not enough to praise their heroism — it's time for politicians in Washington to honor their sacrifice by permanently extending the Zadroga Act.”
The act, passed by Congress in 2010 after nearly a decade of political wrangling, funds two programs. The World Trade Center Health Care Program, which offers free health care, is slated to expire in October 2015. The other program, the Victim Compensation Fund, which reimburses responders and survivors for medical care as well as lost wages and pain and suffering, is slated to end in October 2016.
The programs would not stop immediately, they would remain in place until money runs out, if the act is not extended, officials said.
The fear of losing benefits, however, is too much for many who've suffered the trauma of Sept. 11, victims and officials said.
King said they are optimistic that an extension of some kind will push through Congress within the next year.
“It has to be done,” King said. “We won’t stop until this is done.”
There's a possibility that Congress would want to extend the bill, but not in perpetuity, officials said. There is precedent though, for permanent health care funding through Congress. Coal miners who suffer from black lung, for example, are entitled to federal funds indefinitely, officials said.
Nearly 70,000 first responders, recovery workers and survivors across the country are currently receiving medical treatment through the WTC Health Program, according to officials. The program treats numerous chronic diseases and respiratory illnesses, including asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease and several types of cancer.
The Victim Compensation Fund has deemed more than 7,000 survivors and workers eligible for compensation for their 9/11-related injuries.