The Second Anniversary
Posted by John Feal, 9/11 Survivor and Advocate | January 8, 2013
What an amazing, and often times horrendous, six year journey from 2005-2011 was for many 9/11 First Responders. As so many of us began to get ill we had hope in 2005 that our federal government would take care of us, provide medical treatment for us and not allow our heroic efforts be a distant memory as we struggled to survive. A bill, a lifesaving bill, had been introduced by our champions from the New York Congressional Delegation. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act would help ensure that we would not go bankrupt paying for medical treatment and supplies for our 9/11 related impairments. It would also compensate those injured or ill from their exposure to the World Trade Center Site, allowing those that could no longer work because of their efforts at Ground Zero to have some peace of mind, if only economic. Such a piece of legislation would fly through Congress we thought; how could our leaders not provide for those that risked it all for their fellow citizens.
We soon viewed the sausage making process of a Congressional bill. We viewed it all, every procedure, every hearing, every modification. We waited anxiously as we were told of the importance of other legislation and the dire need to to get those done and processed first. Soon our hope grew to dismay as our bill, year after year failed to make it to the Congressional floor for a vote. When would sick and dying 9/11 First Responders be important enough? How long did we need to wait in line while our brethren fell to their illnesses? Our dismay turned to anger, and beginning in 2008, our anger truly turned to activism. Press conferences were held on the Capital Lawn, hundreds of First Responders went door to door in Capital Hill, educating Congressional Leaders on the virtues of our bill and the medical plights we all faced. Of course, like a new born doe, we had to get our legs underneath us and learn the “who, what, where, when and why’s” of Congressional advocacy, but we were making a difference and it was palpable each time we entered Washington. By 2010, we didn’t need to knock on doors quite as loud, they were opened for us with a fresh cup of coffee and a congressional aide to hear us out. We pleaded our case, made our arguments and pushed everyone as hard as we could, our bill simply couldn’t wait any longer, to many were dying around us. Even when many said all hope was gone, we pushed until the end and got our Christmas miracle. No singular person or organization got it done, it was truly collective advocacy and it was truly something amazing to be a part of.
Like any bill the Zadroga Act had holes, not the least of which was the exclusion of cancer, but we were so proud to get it signed by the President of the United States. Finally, after six years, our government would help us. The NIOSH run medical program was funded and our medical care was guaranteed for years to come. The VCF would assist First Responders-in-need with compensatory benefits that they earned assisting our nation recover from one of its worst moments in history. We had accomplished a great deal for our First Responder community and had finally placed the proper importance on caring for a group of our nation’s heroes.
Yet, our advocacy carried on past the signing of the Zadroga Bill into law. Cancer, a disease that plagues far to many in our society, appeared to be focusing special attention on the 9/11 community and we knew this was not a coincidence. Hours, days, weeks and months spent on top of or near to smoldering debris of unfathomable carcinogenic materials certainly would wreak havoc on our health. Finally, science caught up with common sense, and following a number of scientific articles, and some good governance by NIOSH, various cancers were added for coverage under our bill. So many people fought so hard to have this accomplished and we owe them for never forgetting our struggles.
Today, two years after becoming law we unfortunately tackle new obstacles. The VCF has failed to pay compensatory benefits to a single First Responder. Those that believed economic help was on the way, First Responders who faced economic turmoil due to their illnesses, are still waiting for that help to arrive. It is unacceptable to say the least. Blame for this problem wears many hats and we must once again come together as a community and ensure that these obstacles are removed and First Responders are provided with the benefits they so desperately need, and rightfully deserve.
We continue to fight governmental sequestration of Zadroga Bill funding. Such sequestration makes no common sense, as the Zadroga Bill actually decreased the federal deficit. Yet another example how the sausage making process works and that the sausage makers are unaware of what’s in it.
Lastly, our collective efforts in advocacy will continue into 2013 and beyond. The unfortunate reality is that our bill simply does not extend long enough and our medical concerns will stretch long past 2016 when the Zadroga Bill is set to expire. We must have the bill extended and funded. While no one, including me, wishes to undertake this battle, we must. And make no mistake, we will. If all that we have accomplished together has taught me anything, it is that we can accomplish anything.