The 411 on $7 Billion for 9/11

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Last week, Senate Republicans burst a very dear bubble of New York Democrats when they blocked a funding bill for 9/11 responders. The measure, officially called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, is aimed at improving health services and providing compensation for those on the scene—but it was primarily the $7 billion cost, not the content, that the GOP railed against.

The battle isn’t necessarily over. The bill failed to get debated; it wasn’t all-out rejected. And for now, the blockage serves as a nice bludgeon for the Democrats, who brought the bill to the floor in the face of a letter sent to Harry Reid on Nov. 29. In it, Senate Republicans said they would refuse to move on any Democrat-backed legislation until the Bush tax cuts were extended and a government funding bill passed. And refuse to move they did, giving Democrats the opportunity to cry that the GOP cares more about millionaire tax-breaks than victims of terrorist attacks.

Despite an amendment offsetting the cost with a proposed change in tax provisions, the general wisdom on the Hill is that this bill doesn’t really have a chance. This sort of measure is, to Republicans, an example of overblown government spending targeted at a relatively tiny group (that already has charities and funds at its disposal). But should the measure get brought back after the tax cuts are dealt with and wangle its way to the floor, it’s worth knowing where that money would go. So here comes the breakdown:

The total comes from a Congressional Budget Office analysis. The CBO identified the relevant population to be around 650,000 people, made of two groups: responders (75,000) and survivors (575,000), which include commuters, residents, “passers-by,” and students enrolled nearby. Out of that total, they assumed that only 15% would actually enroll in the health program and only about 5% would apply for and receive compensation.

The health care program, capped at $3.5 billion, would cover everything from treating physical conditions related to the attacks—like, say, lung disease from inhaling dust—to mental health problems for surviving family members of responders. A few less-direct provisions, for things like data collection and education, would also get a piece of the pie. (The CBO estimated the total based on data from Medicare, the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, the Federal Employees Compensation Act and others.)

The compensation prong, capped at $4.2 billion up to 2020, would reopen the Victim Compensation Fund, which pays out to any individual (or relative of a deceased individual) who was killed or hurt in the attacks. Up through 2004, 2,880 death awards and 2,680 injury awards were paid out, to the tune of more than $7 billion.

This time, the requirements for getting VCF money would be looser, with later deadlines and greater allowances for where a person could have been and when they could have been there. For example, someone on a cleanup crew for a month in mid-2002 might be eligible under this bill, whereas before individuals had to be present on site within hours of the attacks. And the geographic area would include routes used to remove debris, including barges and landfills. All told, the CBO estimates that during the next 10 years, 35,000 awards of an average $180,000 would be paid out under this legislation. (There are also smaller costs to anticipate, like the amount it takes to process claims for awards or attorney’s fees.)

So what say you, Swamplanders? Should the bill arise again, should the Dems get some Republican support?