Lawmakers protest slashing of 9/11 funds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Lawmakers representing Lower Manhattan are strongly protesting a looming national deficit reduction measure poised to cut millions of dollars from the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

Late last month, the New York delegation sent a letter to President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget urging that it exempt the 9/11 health bill from automatic spending cuts currently slated to begin in 2013. The request comes on the heels of a bill introduced by U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler that would do away with the financial cutbacks altogether.

The sequestering of federal expenditures would put $24 million of the law’s Victim Compensation Fund and $14 million in World Trade Center health program funds on the chopping block. Both programs would be subject to an additional 7.6 percent cut each following year until the law expires in 2016. These cuts would belong to a spending reduction amounting to more than $1 trillion across a variety of defense and domestic programs as a means to pare down the country’s ballooning deficit.

In the letter, addressed to O.M.B. director Jeffrey Zients, lawmakers Kirsten Gillibrand, Chuck Schumer, Carolyn Maloney, Peter King and Jerrold Nadler called the proposed cuts nonsensical.

“It is not consistent with Congressional intent, does not follow precedent regarding trust funds provided for victims, and we would urge the O.M.B. to reconsider this initial funding if it is required to proceed with a sequester,” they wrote. “Not only would these cuts be devastating for the victims that need assistance, we are concerned that O.M.B. has not fully investigated the facts under which these programs operate.”

The cutbacks would fail to take into account New York City’s agreement to voluntarily finance 10 percent of the 9/11 health program. Such contributions, the delegation argued, are supposed to be exempt from sequestering under federal law. Regardless, the treatment and compensation services provided by the Zadroga Act should belong to a list of more than 100 other such programs that are fully excluded from sequestration.

“There are currently 150 exemptions, including at least six programs established for injuries and illnesses, signed into law by February 2010 — nearly a year before the 9/11 health bill was passed,” the delegates wrote. “Had the 9/11 health bill existed then, the 9/11 programs would have been among the items protected from sequestration.”

The cuts currently spare veterans’ services, per an announcement the O.M.B. released last April stating that programs under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would be untouched by sequestration, the lawmakers noted.

Maloney, Nadler and King, the sponsors of the Zadroga Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, have written a similar letter to the House leadership asking that steps be taken to salvage the 9/11 health bill funds. “Decreasing funding for these programs would be a devastating blow to the heroes and survivors of 9/11 and would break a solemn promise this country made to never forget the sacrifices made on that dreadful day,” they wrote.

The politicians continued, “Cuts to these programs undoubtedly will threaten the care of individuals in the programs, hinder implementation of the recent decision by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to add certain cancers in the list of covered conditions for the programs, and limit our ability to compensate those who lost their health or their lives because of those terror attacks on our country.”

John Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation, a 9/11 advocacy organization, is also slamming the proposal. In 2010, funds were considerably slashed from a former iteration of the Zadroga Act, he noted, in order to ensure the bill’s passage through Congress. The law as it stands is not only fully paid for by a dedicated national revenue stream, but it was also crafted to provide an additional $433 million toward deficit reduction.

The proposed cuts are “simply uncalled for, unneeded and unconscionable,” said Feal. “With the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s decision to include cancers for coverage under the Act, Zadroga needs more funding, not less.”