The 9/11 World Trade Center Health Program, which aides those diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, will receive a 75-year extension as part of a $1.1 trillion spending bill signed Friday by President Barack Obama.
Also included in the massive spending bill is $50 million for the Department of Defense, Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program, the same amount provided in 2015. That program, which is aimed at helping military veterans, has allocated almost $12 million for mesothelioma research since 2008.
The World Trade Center Health Program is within the $8.1 billion reauthorization of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act designed to help those injured by the historic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The reauthorization comes as a relief to thousands of residents and first responders sickened by the toxic air and smoldering debris that lingered for months in New York City after the terrorist attack.
“It is permanent health care for the 9/11 community,” John Feal, president of FealGood Foundation, a prominent advocacy and lobbying group, told Asbestos.com. “For tens of thousands of people, it’s the best present they could possibly get under the Christmas tree this year.”
The World Trade Center Health Program, originally founded in 2010, officially expired Sept. 30. It continued operating on emergency funds and currently serves approximately 70,000 patients receiving care or monitoring. The passage of the bill, which doesn’t expire until 2090, will ensure a lifetime of health care.
“I’ll be 124 years old by then,” said Feal, a former demolition supervisor who lost part of his foot during the cleanup efforts at Ground Zero. “To get this done, it took a lot of hard work, determination and the shaming of members of Congress to do the right thing.”
The unusual length of the extension stems from predictions made by prominent doctors who said many of the first responders may be diagnosed in the future with life-threatening cancers related to the toxins in the air following the attack.
Mesothelioma, for example, can take anywhere from 20-50 years after exposure to asbestos before it is diagnosed. It has been estimated that 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used in the construction of the World Trade Center destroyed in the New York attack.
Well-respected thoracic surgeon Dr. Raja Flores told Asbestos.com earlier this year that he expects an alarming number of mesothelioma cases related to 9/11 to emerge in the coming decades.
The Health and Compensation Act also includes victims and responders from the attacks on the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, sites. Almost 3,000 people were killed at the three locations.
The Victim Compensation Fund, which is the second half of the Zadroga bill, will receive $4.6 billion to fund it through 2021. It was set to expire Oct. 1, 2016.
That fund originally was used to compensate families of those killed in the attacks, but recently it began paying families of those who died from illnesses stemming from the rescue and cleanup efforts.
According to the fund’s most recent report, people from all 50 states are receiving compensation benefits. More than 15,000 claims for compensation already were approved. That number is expected to double.
As part of the new spending bill, the U.S. Government Accountability Office will conduct an audit of the health program every five years. Skeptics were worried about the potential for fraud and abuse, which caused the delay in passing. A $20 trillion federal debt didn’t help the cause, either.
A month earlier, the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation bill looked ready to pass on its own with permanent funding for both halves of the program. There were 270 sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives and 69 in the U.S. Senate, but it still stalled.