By Elaine S. Povich
A celebration of the new 9/11 Zadroga health care law on Capitol Hill Tuesday was full of joy - though tempered by union officials who lobbied lawmakers on behalf of ill rescue workers who could be excluded from the law's compensation fund.
They are counting on a new special master, who will oversee the new law, to interpret what they see as a gray legal area to allow compensation for first responders who initially agreed not to sue in the future in order to get money from the 2001 Victim Compensation Fund.
"The lingering issue of the compensation fund needs to be worked out by the special master," argued Richard Alles, national legislative director for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association of the FDNY, who was in Washington to attend the reception. "The legislation is vague, and the special master will have to work out the details."
Tuesday, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, both of Manhattan, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and New York's Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting a meeting to "discuss the qualities we think you should consider" when making the special master appointment.
The lawmakers said they were concerned specifically with cancers that appeared in first responders subsequent to their taking payment from the Victims Compensation Fund.
The reception in the Cannon House Office Building was billed as a party to celebrate passage of the Zadroga Act, named for the late NYPD officer James Zadroga.
The law calls for health benefits for first responders who are suffering adverse health effects from working on "the pile" - the tons of rubble created when the Twin Towers fell, releasing toxic dust and ash.
But while those workers qualify for Zadroga Act health benefits, the law is unclear about whether to allow first responders who took initial payments from the Victim Compensation Fund access to the nearly $3 billion in Zadroga compensation for illnesses and inability to work.
Maloney, the primary mover behind the Zadroga Act, agreed with Alles that ill first responders "should be able to come in again" to the Zadroga fund, a benefit in an earlier version of the legislation but later dropped in bargaining. She also said many of the details "will be decided by the special master. The special master will have a lot of leeway."
King raised the example of a symbolic rescue worker. "If he got $5,000 for a broken ankle and five years later he has blood cancer, it's not related," he said, arguing for more compensation under the Zadroga Act. "We feel we can work with Holder."