9/11 health claims should be fully funded, first responders and politicians say

Firefighters and New York’s congressional representatives rallied at Ground Zero Sunday in support of legislation to fully fund claims by 9/11 victims, citing fears of diminishing dollars for health compensation.

First responders to the deadliest terror attack on American soil said rates of serious illnesses stemming from breathing the toxic air of Ground Zero have intensified in recent years as claims for the federal victim’s fund have increased. By the end of 2018, the fund had received 43,100 claims — more than 10,000 of which were filed in the last year.

“People all around me are dying and getting diagnosed with different diseases,” said John Venticinque, 57, from Deer Park, who responded in the days after 9/11 as a New York City firefighter and attended the rally with his son, Joseph. “Morale is OK; we want the compensation. We don’t have any regrets, but unfortunately this has affected us 10, 15 years later and that’s the really difficult part.”

Venticinque said he had been diagnosed with two cancers and a gastrointestinal disorder. He’s received money through the fund, which he said was a tremendous help.

February letter from Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, warned that money was running out to continue supporting first responders, inspiring the bipartisan “Never Forget Our Heroes Act” announced by New York Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, as well as Republican Rep. Peter King.

The act would direct as much federal dollars to the VCF to fully support claims through the 2090 fiscal year. The bill is set to be heard Tuesday in the House of Representatives, where it has attracted a 304 co-sponsors, a healthy majority.

Without the extended funding, more than 90,000 9/11 first responders and survivors across the country will be left without financial assistance, according to officials behind the legislation. More than 2,000 FDNY members and nearly 1,000 NYPD personnel have retired due to illnesses linked to Ground Zero air quality. Hundreds of FDNY and NYPD members have died.

“There were all kinds of people who volunteered and worked here and they deserve to have their health care taken care of. It’s absolutely vital,” Maloney said. “We said ‘we would never forget.’ Well this would show we haven’t forgotten.”

Maloney felt confident the legislation could be passed in the House by July 4, but was still concerned about the act becoming a point of political bargaining.

“Everything with funding is difficult,” Maloney said. “But I’ve worked on a lot of bills — this is the most co-sponsors we’ve ever had. It is truly a bipartisan effort.”

Support in the Republican-led Senate is not as broad. An identical bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has attracted 38 co-sponsors. It needs 51 votes in the Senate to pass.

FDNY Battalion Chief James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, urged lawmakers to look past politics and pass the act.

“This should be a bill that sets aside any political differences,” Lemonda said. “This should be a vote for the proud Americans who responded on our darkest day on our own soil when our nation was attacked. They stood up for freedom, democracy and liberty. Now we’re asking our elected leaders to stand tall.”

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