WASHINGTON - President Obama yesterday signed the 9/11 health bill into law, finally delivering federal health benefits to sick Ground Zero workers who have waited nine years for the help. Obama briefly interrupted his Hawaii vacation to sign the $4.3 billion bill, which squeaked through Congress in the final hours of the lame-duck session last month.
The president said he was "honored" to sign the bill. "We will never forget the selfless courage demonstrated by the firefighters, police officers, and first responders who risked their lives to save others," Obama said.
Still, some first responders were disappointed there wasn't a formal White House ceremony. John Feal, a former demolition supervisor at Ground Zero who spearheaded the fight for benefits, said the long-awaited bill signing was a "testament to the resolve of people who wouldn't give up." "The president's signing finally gives the 9/11 community some kind of closure and validation," he said. "I'd like to have seen it signed in the White House so the first responders who fought for this could see the fruit of their labor." Obama signed the bill in Hawaii because the 10-day deadline to do so was about to expire, a White House spokesman said.
The bill, titled the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, is named for an NYPD detective who died at 34 of an illness that a New Jersey autopsy linked to his work at Ground Zero, although the New York City medical examiner disputed the cause of death. The signing inspired Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who brokered an11th-hour deal with Republicans to pass it on Dec. 22, to say, "All Americans should be proud." "Today's victory is for the first responders, firefighters, police officers, every family and every volunteer who never gave up and made sure that Congress fulfilled its duty to the 9/11 heroes," she said.
The deal Gillibrand struck, which shaved $2 billion off the original cost, was hailed a "Christmas miracle." Gillibrand and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) were viewed as the driving force in the Senate. Manhattan Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler and Long Island Republican Pete King led the effort in the House. Maloney said the new benefits will "save lives, and fulfills our moral obligation." King called it "a great day for America" and "a great victory for the heroes of September 11th."
Meanwhile, thousands of eligible recipients could lose the Zadroga benefits if they now sign on to a separate $100 million deal to settle lawsuits against the Port Authority and private companies involved in Ground Zero cleanup. Plaintiffs' lawyers last week were scrambling to get first responders to join the settlement before Obama signed the Zadroga bill, which disallowed accepting other payouts after it became law.