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If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's this: The people who ventured onto the site of Ground Zero after 9/11 were brave individuals willing to risk their lives and health to render aid and assist in the early days of cleanup on a site with a plethora of unknown and unstudied toxins and other safety risks. Many knew that the infamous dust that coated lower Manhattan in the wake of attacks couldn't be good for you — and a slew of ensuing studies has supported that hypothesis.
First responders who arrived onsite and didn't hesitate are owed, at the very least, assistance from the government when they get sick with occupational illnesses, but the issue has been a subject of bitter infighting in Congress for years.
It may take a semi-retired scion of satire to force Congress to do the right thing by those who have paid a high price for their work at Ground Zero, as we learned this week when Jon Stewart dropped by the Daily Show to educate audiences about the issue. The fact that we are still debating whether people deserve assistance with 9/11-associated health care expenses after 14 years is reprehensible. Even most of Congress agrees, but it hasn't stopped any attempts at addressing the problem from stalling out.
The first death believed to be associated with 9/11 exposures was that of James Zadroga, an NYPD officer who died of respiratory disease in 2006 despite being in excellent health. An initial autopsy concluded that particulate materials found in his lungs strongly suggested that he died of 9/11-related occupational illness, though New York's medical examiner tried to claim otherwise. His case became a rallying point for the state, which extended health care benefits to those with illnesses associated with their service, and eventually, the cause went federal, with Congress taking up the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
Shockingly, it didn't pass.
Congress, much of which is fond of wearing American flag pins and making speeches about how it will never forget the 9/11 attacks, didn't feel that first responders should be provided with government assistance to compensate them for the pain and suffering they endured as a result of doing their jobs under extraordinary conditions. Some cited concerns about fraud, others the impossibility of confirming that illnesses were linked to Ground Zero exposure, and others complained about the possible expense.
Republicans actually filibustered a bill designed to ensure that people who got sick cleaning up the most significant terrorist attack in American history got the health care they needed.
After much wrangling, and a very public shaming by Jon Stewart, who was never afraid to back down from political issues during his tenure at the helm of the Daily Show, the bill finally passed in 2010, going into effect in 2011.
But now, the Zadroga Act is running out of funding, and it's up for reauthorization, ideally with the goal of making it permanent rather than contingent on the whims of Congress, which we know can be a capricious creature. This should be an easy one for both parties. Actual humans on both sides can vote to protect the welfare of people who risked everything to save lives and start the painstaking cleanup of Ground Zero. People wanting to score political points can proudly proclaim that they're looking out for first responders.
However, H.R. 1786, with 260 cosponsors, and the corresponding S. 928, with 66, are stalled out in Congress over another funding battle. With New York lawmakers as well as first responders asking Congress to stop blocking continued funding, Jon Stewart decided to take the power of celebrity in hand with a return edition of his prior push to get the initial bill passed, traveling to Washington to attempt to pin down some members of Congress and ask them why they didn't support the reauthorization.
He was largely stonewalled, managing to talk to only one Senator, Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who ultimately did vote in favor of the bill ("Perhaps shame does work," Stewart mused), but the fight isn't over as people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declare that they're worried about funding and use it as leverage to block successful passage even as the clock runs out on this session.
With the amount of pork in Congress, reducing the issue of providing health care for these brave men and women to "funding" isn't just ridiculous. It's appalling. It's a national shame. It's offensive. If Congress can authorize funds for, as a recent episode of Scandal pointed out, its obsession with brown tree snakes, it can most certainly afford to pay for health care for those who will need it in the coming years as their Ground Zero exposure comes back to haunt them.
People who served on the site are already dying — one firefighter poignantly carries around a growing collection of prayer cards from funerals for his fallen brethren. Others are gravely ill. Some aren't sick yet, but slow-blooming cancers and other illnesses will continue to manifest in the future, and longitudinal studies are already pointing to the need to keep adding new illnesses to list of those covered by the act. They need reliable access to health care and an assurance that the government cares about their sacrifices, and their family members need the same thing.
Stewart argued these causes passionately when he appeared on the Daily Show on Monday night for an editorial feature that took up roughly 2/3 of the show, as he spoke briefly on stage and cut to a video featuring him and a group of first responders wandering around Capitol Hill looking for someone to talk to. It was a stark, sardonic feature, and Stewart's lost none of his bite when it comes to political commentary.
He was clearly deeply furious that he had to return to his old stomping grounds to retread what should be a done deal — what could possibly be controversial or dubious about health care to relieve the stress of those who reported for duty at Ground Zero?
Perhaps the most striking part of the segment lay at the very end, though, with Stewart bringing back the panel of first responders who spoke on the show when he advocated for the original version of the bill. Then, the passionate, articulate people who fought so hard for the bill before in the face of considerable pressure from government officials were hard to ignore, speaking from the heart and personal experience with a scene most members of Congress could only imagine.
Of the four first responders he'd convened previously, only one was able to make it.
Two were ill and unable to attend, and the third was dead.
Image: Pacific Press/Getty Images.