WASHINGTON – Sick first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks gave emotional testimony to Congress on Tuesday, demanding that lawmakers extend a compensation fund for those ailing and dying of diseases linked to toxic debris at the disaster sites.
The hearing before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was held as lawmakers from both parties said they want to pass legislation that would prolong the victim fund, which is running out of money.
The special master who oversees the fund, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced in February that future payouts will be cut by as much as 70% to offset surging claims from those who are sick or dying.
Luis Alvarez, a former New York Police Department detective, was one of a number of seriously ill Ground Zero workers who gave searing testimony about their longtime battles with illnesses, their loved ones who have died, and their frustration with having to beg Congress to help.
Alvarez said he had survived 68 rounds of chemotherapy to fight 9/11-related cancer, and would start his next round today. Frail and struggling at times to speak, Alvarez said he came to Capitol Hill on behalf of those who will get ill later and may get little or no aid from the fund.
“My life isn't worth more than the next responder to get cancer. My family's needs are not worth less than any others who have already died,” Alvarez said. “This fund is not a ticket to paradise. It is there to provide for our families when we can't. Nothing more. You all said you would never forget. Well I'm here to make sure that you don't.”
When he finished speaking, the hearing room erupted in applause, giving Alvarez a standing ovation, as some in the room wiped away tears.
Alvarez's testimony was followed by a furious denunciation of lawmakers from Jon Stewart, the former “Daily Show” host who has championed Ground Zero workers. Stewart said the small number of lawmakers who appeared at the hearing shows how little respect Congress has for those who responded to the attacks.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak ... to no one,” said Stewart, who fought back tears at times during his remarks. “It's shameful, it's an embarrassment to the country.”
Pointing to Alvarez, Stewart said: “Lou doesn't want to be here. None of these people want to be here. And they're not here for themselves.
“I'm sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic, but I'm angry,” he said. “There is not an empty chair on that stage that didn't tweet out 'never forget the heroes of 9/11' ... well, here they are! And where are they?
“Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It's the one thing they're running out of.”
The fund was opened by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for deaths and illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after terrorists crashed four hijacked airliners on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The $7.3 billion fund has paid about $5 billion to roughly 21,000 claimants. About 700 were for deaths that occurred long after the attacks.
With more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims, the fund is running out of money. Bhattacharyya announced that pending claims, including those received before Feb. 1, will be paid at 50% of their prior value. Subsequent claims are being paid at 30%, and the fund is scheduled to stop taking claims entirely in December 2020.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the committee would vote today on a bill to extend the program, and Republicans publicly pledged to support it.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., sought to assure Stewart that, while there were not many lawmakers at the hearing, the message of the first responders would be heard far beyond the committee room.
“I've been in politics a while; I can't recall being so moved by testimony as I was today,” Johnson said. “If it's any comfort to you all, we know this bill is going to pass with an overwhelming landslide majority of the House, maybe unanimous.”