With the deadline nearing for Congress to negotiate a balanced deficit-cutting package or face deep automatic cuts across federal programs - known as sequestration - U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer, were joined today by U.S. Representatives Peter King, Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler, 9/11 first responders and survivors in urging their colleagues to negotiate a responsible package to replace the sequester before the devastating cuts, including $3 billion in federal aid to Hurricane Sandy victims and $27 million to the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation program, go into effect on March 1st, 2013. Gillibrand and King have introduced new legislation to fix a technicality in the law and permanently exempt the 9/11 program should sequestration go into effect at any time in the future. The Zadroga Act is fully paid-for, reduces the deficit and would have been immune from automatic cuts to domestic programs had it been signed into law just 11 months earlier.
The 2013 budget cuts already exempt veterans and at least six federal programs which aid the sick and injured from sequestration cut, including the Payment to Radiation Exposure Compensation Trust Fund, Radiation Exposure Compensation Trust Fund, Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Fund, Vaccine Injury Compensation, Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Trust Fund, and the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. In total, the OMB has included 150 exemptions to date -- including the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation Fund and pensions for former Presidents.
During last summer's debt-ceiling crisis, a deal was reached to automatically cut over $1 trillion in defense and domestic programs, known as sequestration, if a "super committee" could not reach a balanced deficit reduction plan. Despite clear precedent for an exemption for health and compensation programs, an estimated $17 million is slated to be slashed from the 9/11 Bill's Victim Compensation Fund, and an additional $10 million would be cut from the World Trade Center Health Fund in 2013 alone.
The lawmakers emphasized that Congressional members from both parties must come together to work towards an alternative to sequestration -- a process they believe to be the wrong approach to deficit reduction, and was only to be triggered as a matter of last resort. In the event that these automatic cuts to military and non-discretionary spending do take place, however, New York's elected leaders will fight to save 9/11 funds from any sequester cuts.
"Nothing exemplifies this unbalanced and draconian approach to deficit reduction more than asking our heroes who have already sacrificed so much to sacrifice yet again," said Senator Gillibrand. "Our 9/11 heroes who answered the call of duty should be treated with the same dignity as our veterans. Just as we came together as Democrats and Republicans to fight for our 9/11 heroes and families needing relief to rebuild from Sandy, I urge our colleagues to do the same and work towards a balanced approach that avoids the looming deep and automatic cuts from going into effect. But we must prepare for the worst case scenario, and we will fight just as hard to save the 9/11 health bill from budget cuts as we did to pass the bill originally."
"This is one of the most poignant examples of why we must work to avert the sequester," said Senator Schumer. "We can entirely avoid this problem if both parties agree to support a balanced deficit reduction plan that includes closing tax loopholes as well as sensible savings. But in the event that they don't, we must work to make sure there that the burden does not fall on the national heroes who are finally receiving the help they deserve through the Zadroga Act. Veterans have been exempted from sequestration and the heroes who have rushed to towers after 9/11 should be treated the same. They risked their lives in a time of war and suffered for it."
"We have come too far and our 9/11 heroes have waited far too long to allow sequestration to cut this critical funding," said Rep. King. "It is simply too cruel. I regret that Senator Gillibrand and I must now sponsor legislation requesting that the Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, a fully paid-for, deficit reducing piece of legislation be immune from such cuts. Our heroes deserve better."
"Two years after Congress fulfilled its promise to the heroes of 9-11 by giving them the health benefits and support they need and deserve, we're now just days away from going back on that promise. On Friday, if Congress does not act, $17 million will be slashed from the VCF and another $10 million will be cut from the WTC Health Fund. That is, quite frankly, an outrage," Rep. Maloney said. "Neither program adds one red cent to the budget deficit. Veterans' health programs are exempt, and so should be the programs covered by the Zadroga Act. These cuts would be a grave injustice and Congress has a moral obligation to stop them."
"We must safeguard every last dollar we allocated for our bill, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and ensure that sequestration does not force us to ration assistance for the sick," said Rep. Nadler. "Thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors are sick today because of their exposure to toxins in and around Ground Zero, and they depend on this funding for their health and well-being. We are calling on Congress to exempt Zadroga from the imminent sequester-borne cuts."
"The FealGood Foundation is happy to join Senators Gillibrand & Schumer, and the NY Congressional Delegation in their attempt to stop the sequestration of the Zadroga Bill," said John Feal, President of the FealGood Foundation. "First Responders, volunteers and the residents of lower Manhattan are willing to fight this attack on our bill and prevent the gutting of legislation that took years to pass. Cutting a bill that reduces the deficit and cutting a bill that is completely paid for, is proof that congress needs to go back to school for math. We look forward to fighting for our rights in the coming months."
"These cuts will affect the health monitoring and treatment currently being provided to thousands of WTC responders and survivors," said Jim Melius, M.D., DrPH, Chair of the WTC Medical Program Steering Committee and 9/11 Health Watch Board Member. "Many of these people have serious illnesses that require very expensive medical care and medications, and many do not have health insurance or other resources to pay for this care on their own. It is unfair to once again hold the health of these heroes hostage to partisan Washington politics. Hopefully, this legislation will pass and prevent this from happening."
"We fought for a decade to finally win justice for those whose lives were forever changed by September 11th, but if sequestration occurs that victory will prove short lived," said Mario Cilento, President of the New York State AFL-CIO. "Tens of millions of dollars in cuts to critical services and compensation for heroes and victims is simply unacceptable, particularly when the programs were fully funded at the time of passage. We thank the bipartisan coalition that is working to exempt 9/11 Health and Compensation Act funds from sequestration, and pledge our support to ensure that they are successful."
In addition to noting that cuts to these programs would be devastating for the families of 9/11 victims and first responders, the five members of Congress also pointed out two key reasons why the 9/11 programs should be exempt from automatic cuts:
The 9/11 health programs should be added onto the list of federal health and compensation programs that are already immune from cuts. There are currently 150 exemptions, including at least six programs established for injuries and illnesses, signed into law by February 2010--nearly a year before the 9/11 health bill was passed. Had the 9/11 health bill existed then, the 9/11 programs would have been among the items protected from sequestration.
The proposed budget cuts are an affront to the 9/11 health law that was already formulated to cut the deficit. The 9/11 law was already devised to be fully paid for and to cut the deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate, the law slashes $433 million from the deficit.