By David Cruz
In advance of a hearing Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, Democrat Frank Pallone was in Piscataway to tour the World Trade Center Health Program clinic at Rutgers University to call for reauthorization of the James Zadroga Act, which provides for medical care — and compensation — for first responders and others who are suffering from cancers, pulmonary disorders and other ill effects from having worked on the pile in the days after the attacks in 2001.
“We started to realize that in the immediate aftermath and as time went on that many people who responded and who were there for several days — weeks even — were negatively impacted in terms of their health and that was the impetus for the 9/11 James Zadroga legislation,” Pallone said today.
But the law is scheduled to sunset in 2016, along with its more than $400 million annual funding. And Pallone is trying to get his colleagues to focus on a reauthorization that would not only secure that funding but guarantee it for as long as there are victims.
“It’s going to be permanent reauthorization so we don’t have to come back to reauthorize it again, so that’s different,” he continued. “The other thing is exemption from sequestration. Almost everything in the federal government over the past few years has been subject to across-the-board cuts. We don’t want this to be subject to across-the-board cuts, so we’re exempting it.”
Services from screening, testing, treatment and even group therapy are part of the services provided at the Rutgers clinic, housed at the Environmental and Occupational Health Science Institute and headed by Medical Director Iris Udasin. It’s the only such facility in New Jersey, seeing close to 5,000 patients, but it would close without the reauthorization.
“We’ve identified conditions that are more common in World Trade Center responders than in other people and that’s one of the really important things about a clinical center of excellence as opposed to just going into a doctor’s office,” said Udasin.
Firefighter Rob Beattie is an executive with the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, who has seen many of his colleagues emerge from their World Trade Center experience with conditions similar to the one that struck down James Zadroga, for whom this law was named.
“All of us lost friends on 9/11, gone now because — on that day — they were simply doing their jobs,” said Beattie. “But since then, over 14 years ago, many more of our brothers and sisters have been lost to dreadful diseases contracted as a direct result of their exposure to toxins and poisons while working at Ground Zero in the days, weeks and months that followed.”
The original bill took years of debate and its funding was cut in half in 2010, but Pallone says he believes there is bipartisan support for the measure, which may be so in the New York, New Jersey region, but who knows what the political environment will be like in 2016 when presidential politics will be dominating the conversation and a bill to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars — for whatever reason — could conceivably fall victim to the heated political environment of an election year.