This Time, Republicans Are Backing 9/11 Health Legislation

06/11/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

WASHINGTON -- What a difference five years make. Unlike in 2010, when Congress nearly failed to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, Republicans on Thursday embraced the renewal of a key part of the act, predicting that it would pass easily.

"The bill needs to be passed," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. On Thursday, the committee held its first hearing on reauthorizing the health portion of the Zadroga law, which provides health benefits to 9/11 responders and is set to expire this fall.

That was a far cry from 2010, when Upton and most other Republicans in Congress voted against the measure repeatedly. It was only able to pass shortly before Christmas, when many members of Congress had already left for the holiday.

And along the way, Republicans insisted on watering down the bill, shortening the duration of the funding and even requiring that 9/11 responders be run through the terrorist database. They complained that responders could abuse the program, that the 9/11 attacks had taken place too long ago to continue taking care of them and that the legislation might provide benefits to illegal immigrants who had responded to the attacks. Several lawmakers called it an unjustified new entitlement program and accused the state of New York of trying to shirk its responsibility to care for the sick and dying.

But on Thursday, Upton was not the only former opponent singing a different tune. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the health subcommittee, characterized the hearing as the first step toward a "timely" reauthorization of the health program. Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) said the administrator of the World Trade Center Health Program, Dr. John Howard, had "opened" his eyes to some of the unique needs of Ground Zero responders with his testimony at the hearing.

Among these needs, Howard said, were rare cancers that had emerged in the 72,000 people being monitored by the program and delayed cases of respiratory ailments, as well as unusual patterns of post-traumatic stress disorder that worsen over time, in spite of treatment. Howard noted that doctors who weren't aware of what to look for would have difficulties identifying many of these issues as being related to 9/11, and many of the illnesses wouldn't be covered by workers' compensation programs.

"Our members are receiving health care that cannot be provided, or only provided with great difficulty, by other types of health insurance," Howard said. "Without the program, our 9/11 responders and survivors might end up in limbo instead of in treatment."

"You've given me some really good things to think about," Guthrie said.

Not all Republicans opposed the bill five years ago, especially those from the New York area. They were pleased by their colleagues' new attitude.

"I am sure this legislation will pass unanimously here, in the full committee and on the floor of the House," said Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.).

Congress does have to act with some urgency, however. While the compensation part of the program is authorized into 2016, the health program expires at the end of this September.

Howard said that if Congress does not act, his program would have to start warning patients about 90 days ahead of time -- which would be at the end of June -- that treatment might soon end.

He and other witnesses at Thursday's hearing said that losing the program would be a catastrophe for the people it serves, including more than 3,000 people with cancer.

"To end this program -- people are going to die," said David Howley, a retired New York City police officer who has repeatedly battled 9/11-linked cancer himself. "It's a fact. It's unquestionable and that's what's going to happen."

"I wouldn't be here, sitting here, if it wasn't for the doctors' ... knowledge, skills, abilities, research. They have become the absolute experts in what is ailing us," Howley added.

Asked by Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) what his greatest fear for the program was, Howard said it was that Congress wouldn't move in time.

"I would say the biggest thing that worries me is that I would have to spend any amount of time -- waste my time -- closing the program, as opposed to growing the program," Howard said.

Lawmakers pledged that it would not come to this.

"I don't believe you're going to have to lose any sleep about shutting this program down," said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).

It is not clear that Congress can enact new legislation by the end of the month, however. Upton committed only to get the bill to the floor of the House before the program's expiration in September.

The uncertainty highlighted one of the goals of the new bill -- to make the treatment program permanent. Howard said such a long-term measure would not only improve his administration of the program, but also prevent significant emotional damage to people who rely on the treatment.

"The assurance of having the same provider, especially for our patients that suffer from very serious mental and physical conditions, is a peace of mind that can only be bought with mandatory funding and an end date," he said.

Similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate, but work on it has not begun yet.

At least one 9/11 responder who fought to win the legislative battle five years ago was impressed by the new GOP attitude.

"Republicans and Democrats are split on so many issues," said John Feal, who founded the Fealgood Foundation after losing half his foot at Ground Zero. "But if this doesn't tug at your heartstrings and this doesn't make you want to be a patriotic American and do the right thing, then you're simply not human. And those people today, they showed that they're human."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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