Senate Fails to Consider Funding for World Trade Center Health Program
The U.S. Senate failed to take action Wednesday evening on a bill that directly affects many hundreds of Lower Manhattan residents. The so-called “omnibus bill,” which is intended to pay for all government operations beyond a Friday deadline, contains a provision sponsored by New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand that would partially fund the World Trade Center Health Program. The Health Program, which provides medical treatment to people affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is facing an impending budget shortfall that, if left unaddressed, could cause it to scale back services starting in less than two years.
In November, Senator Gillibrand sponsored legislation to add $3.6 billion in supplemental funds to the Health Program, which would have closed the impending funding gap caused by an upsurge in the incidence of disease related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When this measure failed to garner sufficient support, she pared back her goal to $1 billion, which would be enough to keep the Health Program operating for an additional five years.
That modified proposal (which took the form of an amendment to the omnibus bill) gained the assent of Senate leadership from both parties, and was scheduled for a vote late on Wednesday evening, when it was expected to pass. But this vote was derailed when a separate controversy (over enforcement of immigration laws at the border) delayed consideration of the omnibus bill as a whole, rendering moot any discussion of amendments to it.
Created in 2011 and reauthorized by Congress in 2015, the Health Program is budgeted for preset amounts of funding, based on anticipated enrollment. But these projections turned out to underestimate the number of people in need of such services. Some 9,000 responders and 5,000 survivors signed on during the Health Program’s first five years, while an additional 16,000 responders and 20,500 survivors joined in the five years up to 2021. As of the end of September, according to the Health Program, there are more than 120,000 people enrolled, divided between approximately 36,000 survivors and 84,000 responders (which includes people who participated in rescue and recovery at all September 11 sites, plus those who were present at the sites to which debris was transported, plus those who worked on the routes along which it was transported, over many months).
The funding formulas contained in the statutes that created and renewed the Health Program have failed to keep pace with the anticipated costs of providing the program’s services because of the evolving nature of the health problems it is being called upon to treat. As the Centers for Disease Control (which oversees the Health Program) explains in a statement, “the Program has seen an increase in the number of cancer cases. The complexity of treating cancer, especially with other co-morbidities, and an aging membership in general, has increased the Program’s healthcare costs beyond what was previously estimated.”
Community Board 1 (CB1) enacted a resolution in October, noting that, “in coming years, the World Trade Center Health Program will not have enough funds to provide all the care that is needed for those still suffering the physical and mental health impacts of 9/11. This includes the responders and survivors who will be newly diagnosed in the coming years with 9/11-associated cancers caused by their toxic WTC exposures.”
The same resolution predicted, “if Congress does not take action this year to deal with the impending budget shortfall, then starting on October 1, 2024, the World Trade Center Health Program will have to stop enrolling new members and start imposing additional cuts in services, including cancer care.”
The measure concluded by urging Congressional leaders “to include in the end-of-year Omnibus bill… provisions that would provide the funding of World Trade Center Health Program needs, and that authorize the creation of a research cohort to better study the health impacts on the Lower Manhattan community.”
As of 1am on Thursday morning, the Senate had adjourned for the evening, without considering Ms. Gillibrand’s amendment to provide an additional $1 billion for the World Trade Center Health Program.