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Bloomberg calls again for 9/11 health program

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg went to Congress last week seeking long-term care for sick ground zero workers and was challenged to justify its cost.

Bloomberg, who has made such pleas before, urged a House subcommittee on Thursday to advance a bill creating a long-term program to treat workers and residents made sick by exposure to toxic dust and debris. Initial cost estimates range from $8 billion to $13 billion over 10 years.

Almost seven years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York, the mayor called the federal effort on ground zero health "uncertain and insufficient." The city, he said, plans to spend about $100 million on ground zero-related health problems in the next three years.

Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he was concerned the bill was too generous, offering benefits not just to the people who worked at ground zero, but also to those who just happened to be in the vicinity of the attacks.

"If I had to vote on this legislation today, I would vote no," said Barton, senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Retiring Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., argued strenuously against Barton's concerns and pointed out that there may be little time left in the political calendar to get the bill passed. Congress is about to adjourn for a month, and then will be back for just a matter of weeks before leaving again when the campaign season kicks into high gear.

"In order to get something achieved this year, it will have to be done sooner rather than later," said Fossella.

New York lawmakers have pared down the current version of their 9/11 health care legislation to limit the number of people eligible for treatment. Coverage would be limited to no more than 35,000 first responders and no more than 35,000 civilians who aren't already enrolled in a 9/11 health program. The proposed bill also would reopen the federal victim compensation fund.

The bill's backers said they are hopeful it can be passed this year. The seventh anniversary of the attacks could be an ideal time for lawmakers to try to push the bill through.

"Right now, inertia is the enemy," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman from Queens who is also running for mayor.

Yet the very name of the legislation the James Zadroga Act is a reminder of long-running arguments over how sick Ground Zero made people.

Zadroga was a former NYPD detective who died in January 2006 of lung disease. After his death he became a symbol of ailing Ground Zero workers, but the case has proved problematic.

Zadroga, 34, worked hundreds of hours at Ground Zero beginning on the day of the attacks. A New Jersey autopsy concluded that his death was caused by exposure to Sept. 11 dust. But the city medical examiner disagreed, saying the improper use of prescription drugs contributed to Zadroga's lung disease.

Currently, Zadroga's name is on the NYPD's memorial wall of fallen officers, but it is absent from the city's list of Sept. 11 victims.

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