POLITICS

9/11 Health Program Now Officially On Borrowed Time

Ailing responders will still get care -- until the cash reserves run out.

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to a sense of urgency, Congress has to be graded on a curve these days, so perhaps no one should be too surprised that lawmakers failed to reauthorize the 9/11 health program before it expired Wednesday night.

It wasn't even the only thing Congress overlooked as it beat the deadline to keep the government open by just seven hours. The Children's Nutrition Reauthorization expired as well. So did a major student loan program.

All of those programs have one thing in common: As vital as they may be to the people who use them, lawmakers could point to a way they could address them later. If the damage is slow to build, or can eventually be repaired, then it doesn't qualify -- at least in lawmakers' eyes -- as worthy of urgent attention. 

But imagine you rushed to the World Trade Center 14 years ago, and 343 of your co-workers died. Imagine that more have died since then from their exposure to the toxic dust of ground zero. Imagine you have stage 4 cancer in your bones and lymph nodes, and you met personally with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) two weeks ago, as well as with Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), in hopes of getting the 9/11 health program reauthorized.

"It’s very disheartening," Ray Pfeifer, a retired New York City firefighter who's been battling 9/11-related cancer since 2009, told The Huffington Post. "Everybody’s all in a panic and all in a huff because of the expiration. I must have had 20 people call me today."

"But I'm not panicking," he added. "I'm not in panic mode yet."

One reason Pfeifer isn't panicking is that while the health treatment program he relies on did expire at midnight, it has enough cash in its reserves to continue operating into next year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also isn't panicking because he left Capitol Hill last month -- following a whirlwind tour with comedian Jon Stewart -- confident of McConnell and Alexander's assurances that they would get the program reauthorized. On top of that, the bill to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act has been steadily attracting new sponsors, reaching 57 in the Senate and 180 in the House. (A list of backers and opponents is maintained by the advocacy group Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act.)

Still, it hurts that the legislators Pfeifer met couldn't find a way to move a measure that is no longer controversial after five years in operation, and that is actively treating some 33,000 ailing responders across the country.

"I came back and I was exhausted," he said.

The firefighter's impression that the bill will get passed is probably well-founded. A Senate Republican leadership aide predicted to HuffPost that it would pass unanimously.

Still, when pressed this week on when action might begin, either in the Health Committee or on the Senate floor, neither McConnell's office nor Alexander's would say. McConnell told reporters Tuesday he'd have to check and get back to them on it. Both lawmakers' spokespeople pointed to a statement Alexander released two weeks ago saying the bill is a "top priority."

What does worry Pfeifer and other responders is that being a "top priority" still doesn't give a bill the same urgency as, say, Wednesday's 10-week extension of government funding. It leaves it more in the category of things Congress considers less pressing, things that get graded further down the curve, like children's nutrition and student loans.

Plus, 10 weeks is not very far away, and once that period is up, there's likely to be an even more caustic battle involving the full year's funding and the nation's debt limit.

"In December, the government’s going to go crazy again," Pfeifer predicted. "The longer we wait, it’s out of sight, out of mind."

In hopes of pushing things along, he's planning to make another trek to D.C. in October to "bang on doors" if it's still needed. He'll postpone his doctors' visits, load his wheelchair onto a pickup truck and make the case once again with other responders.

Not that he really understands why that should be necessary.

"To have to take time out and go back down there and beg again, it’s crazy," he said.

But short of getting a famous comedian to visit Congress, such a trip seems like the only way to get attention, and maybe action.

"It’s a dog and pony show where they bring the sick guy along and say, 'Oh, we got a sick guy here, too,'" Pfeifer said. "I don’t think that's the way government should run."

UPDATE: Asked Thursday about his plans to bring the new Zadroga Act forward, McConnell again demurred.

"We'll, uh, talk to you about that further," he told reporters. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lamented that Congress had missed the deadline, but expressed confidence that lawmakers would act quickly to renew the 9/11 health program.

"It will get done," Pelosi vowed. She said Democrats back a permanent extension of the legislation. 

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

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