Robert Gehrke: Voters, please never forget Sen. Mike Lee stood in the way of funds for dying victims of 9/11

Robert Gehrke

Why, exactly, would Sen. Mike Lee block legislation to cover the health care costs of first responders who rushed toward the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11?


That’s his explanation, anyway.

He uses that argument in spite of the fact that, of the nearly 29,000 people who have received payments from the government due to illnesses they suffered on 9/11 and in the weeks afterward, there has never been so much as a single claim of a fraudulent payment.

Information in each submission to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is independently verified. Each applicant is subject to a FBI background check. The fund is frequently audited and submission of a false claim is a federal crime, the fund administrator told a House committee last month.

Nonetheless, Lee and his good buddy Rand Paul are blocking new funding for the program that benefits people whose lives are being cut short as a result of exposure at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or at Shanksville, Pa.

Among those who put their lives on the line sifting through the wreckage were 62 Salt Lake City firefighters, members of Utah Task Force One, a specially trained search and rescue unit. They spent 10 days on the World Trade Center pile in choking dust and plumes of smoke. Their respirators clogged with dust, ground glass and asbestos but they stayed and sifted through the vast mound of debris.

They were assured by government officials that the work was safe. We now know it wasn’t.

As of two years ago, 40 of the 62 members of Task Force One had developed serious health problems because of their exposure at the site. At least 17 developed some form of cancer. Young men, just in their 20s when they went to New York, were diagnosed with lymphoma. The only female member of the unit who was at the site developed breast cancer.

As incomprehensible as the terrorist attacks were, the human toll in the aftermath is nearly as mind-boggling.

In 2010, Congress passed the James Zadroga Act, which provided free screenings for first responders and treatment for their ailments. It also reauthorized the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, which made payouts to both responders and civilians sickened by exposure to the site.

More than 50,000 people have submitted claims through the program, and there are more out there. More than 95,000 people have enrolled in a federal program to track victims’ health conditions. Of those, 39,000 have developed respiratory or digestive tract diseases and 765 have died. Nearly 11,000 have been stricken with cancer and 692 of them also have died.

In February, the special master appointed to administer the victims fund notified Congress it was running out of money and wouldn’t be able to pay all of the victims of the catastrophe. The program was slated to stop accepting new applications next year.

Congress leapt into action.

Just kidding.

Lawmakers dithered as they often do — until they were publicly shamed in June by comedian Jon Stewart, who scolded a nearly empty committee room for Congress’ “callous indifference” to the suffering of these men and women.

“Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress,” he said. “Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak — to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country and it’s a stain on this institution.”

Finally, last week, the House approved additional funding, with more than 400 representatives supporting the bill. And 73 of the 100 senators had signed on as co-sponsors, meaning its passage was guaranteed.

Nothing could stop it ... until Lee and Paul intervened.

Paul claimed he was holding up the legislation over concerns about new spending adding to the national debt — although both Lee and Paul voted for the Trump tax cut that the Congressional Budget Office has projected will add $1 trillion to the debt.

Our nation does indeed owe a debt. It’s a staggering, almost unfathomable debt that we will never, ever be able to repay. But it’s not the debt Rand Paul is so concerned about. It’s the sacred obligation we all have to care for and, to some feeble degree, compensate those who suffer and have died because of their selflessness and sacrifice.

“In a word, it’s heartbreaking,” said attorney Michael Barasch, who represents victims and their families.

Barasch said he met with Lee’s chief of staff and was assured that, while Lee did not want to co-sponsor the legislation, the senator would not stand in the way. “We guarantee it,” Barasch said he was told.

“This is bipartisan toxic dust. It didn’t care if you were a Republican or Democrat. Everyone is coming down with the same illnesses,” he said. “It’s just unfathomable why they are doing this, and at the last minute.”

The bill will pass and the program will be funded in the months to come. Nothing either of the two senators can do will stop that. But it takes a special kind of person to stare in the face of a human catastrophe and seize the opportunity to use it for political grandstanding.

If Lee wants to see real fraud, he can look in the mirror.

“Never forget” — that’s the phrase commonly used when we remember 9/11. And we shouldn’t forget the sacrifices of tens of thousands of men and women in the aftermath of those attacks. Likewise, Utahns, you should remember the actions of your senator this week.