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The Senate just extended the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund through 2090

It’s a huge win for first responder activists who have been pushing for a permanent fund for more than a decade.

Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart, speaks at a news conference on behalf of 9/11 victims and families, Friday, July 12, 2019, at the Capitol in Washington.
AP Photo/Matthew Daly

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund has officially been renewed — permanently.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted to extend the fund, which pays out claims for deaths and illnesses related to the 9/11 attacks, on Tuesday, 97-2. 9/11 first responders were at risk of losing coverage for their claims after December 2020. Under the bill, $10.2 billion will be authorized for the fund for the next 10 years, then additional billions until 2090, essentially covering the surviving 9/11 responders for the rest of their lives.

Despite having bipartisan support and passing overwhelmingly in the House 402-12, the road to the Senate vote wasn’t easy. Last Wednesday, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked unanimous passage of the bill, organized by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), citing budget concerns.

A day later, however, the two reached an agreement with Senate leaders to vote on the bill in exchange for votes on two other amendments, one from Paul and the other from Lee. Paul’s amendment proposed offsetting the prices of the bill by cutting other programs. The Senate rejected Paul’s amendment 22-77. Lee’s amendment capped the bill to authorizing $10.2 billion for the fund over the next 10 years, and then an additional $10 billion after that. It was also shut down 32-66.

Before the vote, Gillibrand had emphasized the need to fully fund the bill for the sake of sick 9/11 first responders, according to the Hill.

“I understand the 72 years is a recipe for trouble, but the truth is the timing is limited for this bill because these men and women aren’t going to survive. So many of them are already sick and dying,” she said.

The bill’s passing is a huge win for 9/11 first responders, who have been fighting for a permanent fund for more than a decade to address the long-term health effects of the 9/11 attacks. Out of the 70,000 people who have been enrolled in health care programs for 9/11 first responders, more than 32,000 of them have developed diseases of the respiratory or digestive tracts, and 705 have died of those diseases. Cancer has also affected almost 9,000 first responders, and 600 have died.

Most recently, Luis Alvarez — a 9/11 first responder whose emotional testimony alongside comedian Jon Stewart last month went viral — died on June 29 from cancer that was linked to his three months working at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers. The reauthorization bill was named after Alvarez following his death.

The fund has jumped multiple political hurdles to finally reach permanent coverage

The original September 11th Victim Compensation Fund operated from 2001 to 2004 to compensate those who suffered physical harm or the families of those who were killed due to the terrorist attacks in 2001.

But as first responders continued to fall sick and die years after the attacks, the fund was reactivated in 2011 as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. First responders with an illness that stemmed from their work during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks could receive compensation. The act was named after NYPD officer James Zadroga, who developed a respiratory disease after weeks of contact with the toxic chemicals around the attack site and died in 2006. At the time, $4.2 billion was set aside for survivors and required reauthorization in 2015.

The renewal, however, became a political fight as Republican lawmakers were accused of using the fund as leverage at the negotiation table. After intense pressure from activists — including Stewart, who has long been an advocate for 9/11 first responders — the fund was finally extended for another five years through a last-minute spending deal.

Despite the extension, however, the fund had been struggling: By early this year, $5 billion of the $7.3 billion fund had been paid out to 21,000 claimants, with more than 190,000 additional claims to address, according to NPR. In an effort to make ends meet, significant reductions in awards ⁠— 70 percent less for claims made after February 2, 2019 ⁠— were announced in February.

The newly approved Senate bill will alleviate these financial pressures of the fund and ensure that first responders will be compensated for their service to the country.