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9/11 Health Care Bill Could Get Boost in Congress

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There’s a type of wind that blows in off the North Shore of Long Island that is not only so sharp and cold it burns your face but also has enough force that if it hits you at the right angle, it can knock the air away from your mouth as you try to inhale. Just after Christmas, as firefighters gathered outside a Suffolk County church for the funeral of retired firefighter James Ryan -- who died from cancer doctors believe was caused by toxins he was exposed to while doing recovery work at Ground Zero -- the burning wind augmented another chilly reality for New York’s Bravest: Ryan was not the first front-line responder to die from a 9/11-related illness, and he will certainly not be the last.

Exactly a week later, many of those same responders gathered by the World Trade Center site to read the names of 9/11 responders and Ground Zero recovery workers who have died from illnesses related to their duty. It was the fourth anniversary of the death a another notable responder, New York Police Department Detective James Zadroga, whose name is attached to a bill in Congress that would establish permanent funding for health treatment and monitoring programs for 9/11 response workers and lower Manhattan residents, students and workers.

The medical centers treating the thousands of 9/11 responders as well as lower Manhattan residents and workers suffering from respiratory ailments and mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder survive on annual appropriations funding from Congress. Already a precarious situation, the financial crisis makes things shaker, which is why advocates are intensifying their push for a more reliable funding source.

Show Us the Money

The hold-up -- legislatively speaking -- is in the House Energy Committee. The bill has two parts. The compensation and health component was approved with bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee on the former aspects terms, but the health subcommittee of the Energy Committee hasn’t voted on it, as its chair, New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, is not sure there is enough support for it.

The bill’s supporters -- among them New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, both Democrats, and Peter King, a Republican -- say the votes are there.

However, it has been difficult for lawmakers outside the tri-state area to commit to it, since the measure carries an undetermined price tag. "I am more confident than I have ever been, but like anything it's never done until it’s done," Maloney said, noting that the Zadroga Act has the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The bill has had a complicated history among the various groups who support long-term federal funding. The main city police union -- the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association -- has opposed the bill’s current language because it does not specifically mention certain cancers. They have feared this means that members who develop those cancers would not be covered. Other police and first-response unions believed it is more important to pass the bill now and tweak conditions -- such as adding the cancers -- later.

Resident and worker groups such as Beyond Ground Zero have had similar reservations and also noted that the bill covered residents, students and workers only from Houston street to South Ferry in Manhattan. They believe that the coverage area should extend at least to 14th Street, of not higher.

Even if the activists can push the measure through the House, the Senate will be another story. If the health-care reform bill is any indication, the Senate is far more averse to government funding for health-care than the House. And the senator who had been credited with pushing for much of the current temporary funding, Hillary Clinton, is now secretary of state.

At the ceremony on the anniversary of Zadroga’s death, John Feal -- who heads a 9/11 responders group called the Feal Good Foundation-- showed his technique for passing the bill as soon as possible by displaying his chief weapon: a piece of Whole Foods pork.

"That’s how we get votes right? We give someone in Washington some pork," he said, citing the recent drive to pass the health-care reform bill by offering funding provisions geared to specific states. "So what I’m going to do is mail every member of Congress one these pieces of pork, and I'm going to put a 9/11 responder’s name on it."

Death and Glory

Meanwhile, the 9/11 first responders, their families and supporters face other issues as well.

Ryan’s funeral, at first glance, looked like the typically ornate send-off the city's fire department is famous for: the Emerald Society’s rendition of "Amazing Grace" and a salute by columns of uniformed members. But it wasn’t an official Fire Department event with eulogies from the mayor and commissioner. Those events are reserved for firefighters who die on or as a result of injuries sustained on their shift. Those who die years later don’t count, and 9/11 responder families take this as a snub.

Fire Department officials responded that while members who die long after 9/11 don’t get the official "line of duty" funeral, Ryan and many others did retire with a disability pension, meaning they get three fourths of their average annual salary for their last three years on the job, as opposed to half the salary, which is the standard benefit. In addition, they said, Ryan's family was virtually guaranteed a full death benefit.

But for many first responder advocates, including the heads of unions and fraternal groups, the pomp and circumstance matters. They have voiced their protests for people, such Paramedic Deborah Reeve, a dead Ground Zero worker whose death was designated an "administrative line of duty death." One activist joked that this sounded like she died from a paper cut.

There is a split between how the police and fire departments handle this kind of death in terms of memorials. Police officers like Zadroga, have their names displayed on the police department's memorial wall in lower Manhattan, along with cops who died on their shift, such as officers shot and killed by assailants. Ryan’s name, though, will not be affixed to the Fire Department's memorial wall at its downtown Brooklyn headquarters, along with the 343 FDNY members perished as the towers collapsed.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the power to set a single standard for honoring uniformed responders who die in the line of duty. But he has said he won’t. "I think each agency has to make its own policies," he said at a recent press conference. "There are great traditions that go back a long ways in both these departments."

Uniformed Firefighters Association president Steve Cassidy said that after Ryan’s funeral, much of the media coverage treated his as a line-of-duty death -- more than had been the case for another responder who had died before him. This, Cassidy said, gives him hope that pressure has increased not only on Washington to enact the Zadroga bill but also for the city to give further honors to responders like Ryan.

"A sense of change is in the air," he said.

Ari Paul is a reporter for The Chief-Leader, a weekly newspaper covering city government and the civil service, and a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News. Due to a computer error that deleted key words, this article originally incorrectly identified Rep. Pallone and Rep. Maloney. The error has been fixed.

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