Failure to pass Biden’s Build Back Better plan threatens funding for 9/11 health care program

The death sentence Joe Manchin declared for President Biden’s massive domestic policy bill is also threatening a key priority of New York lawmakers — plugging a nearly $3 billion gap in the 9/11 health program.

New York’s powerful Democratic congressional delegation, led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney in the House, had hoped to ensure the funding hole was plugged by including the money in Biden’s roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better legislation.

Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

But Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, flatly declared in a Fox News interview on Sunday that he would not vote for the legislation, suddenly leaving the 9/11 health program in limbo.

When the health program was made permanent in 2015, some legislators had hoped for more robust funding, but were unable to push more through the Republican-controlled Congress.

Since then, more people have signed up for health care related to Ground Zero exposure than anyone expected, and thousands more have gotten sick, often with costly illnesses such at cancer.

Emergency crews work amid the still-smoldering rubble as the search for survivors continues on the day after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into both towers of the World Trade Center.
Emergency crews work amid the still-smoldering rubble as the search for survivors continues on the day after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into both towers of the World Trade Center. (Maisel, Todd)

The program should have enough money on hand to avoid making cuts for another couple of years, but would likely have to begin making hard decisions as soon as 2023.

In defending his decision Monday, Manchin told the West Virginia radio outlet MetroNews that he wanted the entire process restarted with new committee hearings and votes. He also said he declared his opposition over the weekend because he was furious at unspecified actions by White House staff, who he evidently believed were behind some negative stories about him.

“I just got to the wit’s end,” Manchin said.

While there are certainly many other important and larger programs now facing an uncertain future, the situation is all too familiar and painful for advocates and patients in the 9/11 program, who have dealt with congressional wavering for more than 15 years.

“9/11 responders and survivors across the country are going to be at their ‘wits end,’ when they hear that the funding for their medical care is not going to be there,” said advocate Ben Chevat, who runs the 9/11 Health Watch. “I can’t imagine that Sen. Manchin wants them not to get the medical care they need.”

Schumer’s office declined to speak directly to the fate of the 9/11 funding since the majority leader still believes he can get some version of Build Back Better passed. A letter he sent to fellow Democrats on Monday declared he would bring the bill to the floor for a vote in January, and keep pushing to get the larger measure passed.

Maloney said the BBB bill is “an essential piece of legislation that would touch the lives of so many New Yorkers,” but was especially important for 9/11 responders and survivors because of the $2.86 billion for their health care.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (JOSHUA ROBERTS/AP)

She also suggested if the BBB package disintegrates, she would pursue other pathways. “This critical funding is too important for those who have already sacrificed so much, and it remains a priority to get it across the finish line, whether in BBB or another package,” Maloney said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was the lead author in the Senate of the 9/11 health legislation, also hinted the massive spending bill being held up by the West Virginian isn’t the only way to prevent the 9/11 budget gap.

“Closing the funding shortfall in the World Trade Center Health Program is critical for first responders, survivors and their families who need benefits for 9/11-related health conditions,” Gillibrand said. “There is strong bipartisan support for this important provision and I remain confident that Congress will work together to uphold our promise to those suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.”

Historically, it has been difficult to pass 9/11 legislation on its own, and doing so now would require Congress to start fresh in the new year.

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