Two years have now passed since comedian Jon Stewart gave the House Judiciary Committee a dressing down for their "callous indifference" towards the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF).
Established in 2001, the VCF compensates those who suffered physical injuries or medical illnesses related to the attacks. Families of the deceased are also eligible for compensation.
The VCF had expired once before and Steward wasn’t keen on seeing it happen again. At the time of the June 11, 2019 hearing, the fund faced expiration for the third time in just 18 years.
Even so, the committee hearing to address that was scarcely attended.
The former host of the Daily Show and longtime VCF advocate scolded the committee in June 2019, pointing to the rows of empty seats — calling it "an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution."
"I'm sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic. But I'm angry, and you should be too, and they're all angry as well and they have every justification to be that way. There is not a person here, there is not an empty chair on that stage that didn't tweet out 'Never Forget the heroes of 9/11. Never forget their bravery. Never forget what they did, what they gave to this country.' Well, here they are," Stewart said, alluding to the first responders who accompanied him to the hearing.
"And where are they (the absent committee members)? And it would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign, but it's not. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It's the one thing they're running out of."
The next day, the committee passed the Never Forget the Heroes Act. The full House took up the measure the next month on July 12 and passed it 402-12. Eleven days later, the bill passed the senate 97-2.
With a stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump signed it into law on July 29, 2019. It extended the application to file a claim for compensation until 2090 — effectively covering the lifespans of all victims.
And it brought the United States closer to fulfilling the promise it made to the victims in 2001 — a promise that seemed to be wavering after the original fund expired in 2004.
Why did the VCF need to be revived?
The original VCF distributed more than $7 billion to the families of more than 2,880 deceased victims and to 2,680 people who suffered injuries.
People qualified for compensation if they could prove they were in the vicinity of the New York City Exposure Zone, the Pentagon crash site and the crash site of Shanksville, Penn. between Sept. 11, 2001, and May 30, 2002.
This includes people directly harmed in the attack and the first responders and volunteers who helped clean up the debris.
According to a report by Vox, the claims made under the first VCF mostly related to physical injuries. As the years went on, many of those first responders developed cancer and other illnesses.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 400,000 people were exposed to caustic dust and toxic pollutants at the New York collapses site.
It is predicted deaths from 9/11 illnesses could outnumber the number of people killed in the attack.
As years went on, it became clear these people would need help. In 2011, President Barack Obama reactivated the VCF as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010.
James Zadroga was a New York police officer whose 2006 death was linked to exposure from the Twin Towers collapse.
The legislation bearing his name allocated $4.2 billion to create the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) — responsible for testing and treating the long-term health problems of Sept. 11 victims.
It also came with an expiration date: Oct. 1, 2015. The Zadroga Act would have to be reauthorized if the victims were going to seek any further compensation.
Advocates, like Jon Stewart, mobilized.
Years before he gave the House committee his now-famous tongue lashing, Stewart pleaded with Congress to extend the Zadroga Act.
Even after he departed "The Daily Show" on Aug. 6, 2015, he came back for an episode on Dec. 8, 2015. He used the platform to advocate for Sept. 11 first responders. The episode featured footage of Stewart leading 9/11 first responders through the Senate, hoping to confront Senators who had not backed the bill to extend the fund.
A few weeks later, Congress answered. President Obama signed a reauthorization that would see the fund’s claim filing deadline extended to Dec. 18, 2020. And it increased the funding to $7.357 billion.
But with that deadline came another Congressional battle — one that wouldn’t be settled for good until 2019 when Congress passed the Never Forget the Heroes Act.
In 2016, the Treasury Department began withholding payments to the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, which had been established under the Zadroga Act.
New York City had been using the money to pay the Department of Health and Human Services. That was never the fund’s intended use, The Hill reported.
On Feb. 15, 2019, Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya revealed the fund was running out of money. As of that date, the VCF had awarded nearly $5 billion on 21,000 claims.
That left just $2.375 billion of the $7.375 billion allocated to the fund. And the VCF still had another 20,000 unprocessed claims as well as a burden to satisfy future claims.
To remedy that, payments awarded for pending claims were cut by 50% and new claims by 70%.
"I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation. I also deeply regret that I could not honor my intention to spare any claim submitted prior to this announcement from any reductions made due to a determination of funding insufficiency," Bhattacharyya wrote in a statement. "But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice."
Even so, when Trump signed the Never Forget the Heroes Act, it resolved any future funding concerns.
Since July 2019, the VCF has appropriated funds as necessary to pay all eligible claims — effectively functioning as a blank check.
The law also required the fund to make up the difference in claims that were subject to reductions while funding was insufficient.
"This is a momentous occasion for the VCF and the 9/11 community, and I am extremely grateful for this show of confidence from Congress and the President," Bhattacharyya wrote in a statement. "The enactment of this Act is also a testament to the heroic efforts of the responders, survivors, and advocates who tirelessly pursued this legislation, and without whom we would not be able to continue the vital work we do."
In her annual status report, published in February 2021, Bhattacharyya said the VCF awarded nearly $7.76 billion to more than 34,400 people by the end of 2020.
There's still a financial shortfall in the budget of the WTCHP. The funding needs of the program exceed the current funding formula, jeopardizing the program's ability to provide care for victims in the coming years.
But lawmakers are already trying to address that with the 9-11 Responder And Survivor Health Funding Correction Act. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced the bill in each chamber, which will secure the funding the program will need to provide resources.
"Our country made a promise after 9/11 to always be there for the firefighters, the police, the EMTs, the workers clearing the pile, and survivors, residents, area workers, and students who got sick or injured from the toxins at ground zero," Maloney said. "A promise we kept when we made the 9/11 health program essentially permanent. The funding provided in the 9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act will ensure that everyone impacted by this tragic event gets the care they rightfully need and deserve."
This story was reported from Atlanta.