President Trump on Monday signed a law to permanently extend aid to first responders who fell ill after working at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Today, we come together as one nation to support our September 11th heroes, to care for their families, and to renew our eternal vow: Never, Ever Forget,” Trump said in a Rose Garden ceremony. “In the wake of the September 11th attacks, courageous Americans raced into smoke, fire, and debris in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The whole world witnessed the might and resilience of our nation in the extraordinary men and women of the New York Fire Department and the New York Police Department, selfless patriots of unmatched character and devotion.”
Joined by more than 60 first responders and families of those who died from illnesses exposed to toxic air and debris while working near Ground Zero. Family of Luis Alvarez, a former NYPD bomb squad detective and 9/11 first responder, who died last month just days after testifying before Congress about extending health benefits for those who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was also in attendance.
The official title of the new law bares their names: Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.
“Here with us for this signing ceremony are the three families whose loved ones are memorialized in the title of this bill,” Trump said. “
Trump singled out Alvarez for his “powerful testimony” to Congress shortly before his passing.
“The third namesake of the bill is New York City Detective Luis Alvarez,” Trump said. “Last month, his powerful testimony in Congress touched the heart of our nation. A few days later, he passed from this life into eternity.”
The president said the nation has a “sacred obligation” to care for its first responders and their families.
“We have an obligation, and it’s a sacred obligation, to the families and first responders of 9/11,” Trump said. “To every 9/11 hero, you poured out your heart, your sweat, your soul, and everything you had for your country. You ran toward the wreckage, into a ball of flames, like, frankly, nobody in this country had ever seen. You searched for survivors. You went back day after day and night after night to save lives and return the fallen to their families, to rebuild and recover, and to show the entire world that nothing will ever break America’s spirit.”
House voted earlier this month in a 402-12 vote to pass the bill extending the fund through fiscal 2090. The Senate last Tuesday passed the bill in a 98-2 vote, with Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky) and Mike Lee (R-UT) voting against the measure, citing the need to eliminate unnecessary spending and offset the measure with budget cuts.
The $7.4 billion fund had been rapidly depleting, and administrators recently cut benefit payments by up to 70%. Without the reauthorization, the $7.4 billion fund would run out of money by December 2020.
More than 40,000 people have applied for the fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the attacks. Since the fund was reopened in 2011, the program has paid awards to about 22,400 people at a cost of about $5.2 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Many of the claims went to pay people for cancer, and the CBO notes that since 2017 the share of awards for cancer-related illnesses rose to 45%.
The fund extension is estimated to cost about $10 billion over the next decade, according to the CBO.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who championed the extended fund for years, was also not in attendance. Stewart, along with 9/11 responders testified to a near-empty House Judiciary Committee hearing in June about the bill, calling it “an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution.”
No Democrats attended Monday’s event, according to a guest list distributed by the White House, even though every member of Congress was invited to the ceremony through an email from the Office of Legislative Affairs.