A law that provides medical monitoring and treatment for Sept. 11 first responders expired at midnight Wednesday due to the failure of Congress to act. For now, first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attacks, worked for weeks, and now suffer from illnesses like pulmonary disease and cancers will still be able to get their health care. But in a letter to the Senate, CDC Director Tom Frieden said if the law isn't extended, the WTC Health Program "will begin to face significant operational challenges" by February. By next summer, the program's 72,000 enrolled beneficiaries will have to be notified that they may not receive health care beyond September 2016 and the program will have to start to shut down, a process Frieden says could cause patients additional stress.
The Zadroga Act, named for a responder who died after working at Ground Zero, first became law in 2010 after a debate over the cost. Proponents seek the law's permanent extension in part because some illnesses may not manifest until years later, after the statute of limitations for worker's comp or certain state laws may have run out. House Republicans have been supportive of the program but oppose its permanent extension because they want to be able to periodically review it and make sure it's operating soundly; the Senate hasn't moved a bill. Letting the program expire creates "enormous anxieties and fears in the minds of very sick people," says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, who's been lobbying to make the program permanent and recently was joined by comedian Jon Stewart. "People are dying and suffering, and Congress can easily close this wound," says one leading advocate. "But they continue to add salt to it."