WASHINGTON - Republicans argued Tuesday that it would put the nation's finances at risk if Congress gave aiing Sept. 11 responders a permanent, guaranteed program to ensure they get health care.
Calling the Sept. 11 Health and Compensation Act a new "entitlement program" like Medicare, GOP members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee argued the nation already has too much that it must pay for. They said obligating the feds for lifetime care of tens of thousands of 9/11 responders was too much of a burden.
"By making this a new mandatory program, you jeopardize the financial health of the United States of America," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
And they argued that the heroes of Sept. 11, 2001, were already being cared for, noting the $150 million the Obama recently requested for this year.
Speaking to dozens of responders gathered in a Capitol Hill hearing chamber, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) argued that their demand for the federal government to help "would be just if we weren't spending money already."
"In fact, there's $131 million in the fund right now. The health care needs of first-time responders have been addressed," Shimkus declared, referring to contracts that are being spent now and were delayed by the federal government.
"There's $131 million there that's unspent," said Rogers. "The President said 150. Please don't make it a mandatory program. I agree with the President."
The bill aims to set up a permanent fund to care for ailing responders at a cost estimated around $11 billion over three decades.
Republicans want the responders to come back to Congress every year to make their case, which the legislators argued will help protect against fraud and waste.
"If this issue is so credible based on the results of Sept. 11, we shouldn't be afraid of going through the (budget) authorization process, and fight for the spending bill," said Shimkus.
Some also feared the measure might help people who are undeserving.
"Some of the conditions that are covered under this legislation seemed unusually broad to me because we're talking about asthma, sleep apnea, panic disorder, anxiety disorder, even substance abuse," said Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield. "It's so broad that I think it's going to cover a lot of things that may not be directly related to this incident."
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) argued New York was trying to dump its responsibility for caring for victims of the terrorist attacks on the feds.
"Our support for them (responders) should not be a vehicle for cost-shifting," he said, pointing to the lengthy approval process of the workers' compensation system that generally helps people injured on the job.
"We may be encouraging waste, fraud and abuse - abuse such as New York City vigorously challenging more and more of these claims that our 9/11 heroes need, pushing more and more of them onto the World Trade Center health fund for relief," Gingrey argued.
The whole debate over whether the program should be mandatory or an annual discretionary program misses the point, said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn-Queens), saying it was Congress' obligation to help the people who answered the call almost nine years ago.
And, he noted, the health fund could not be an endless and growing entitlement like Medicare.
"There's a finite number of people," Weiner said. "That finite number of people is getting smaller and smaller every day because they're dying."
New Yorkers in the crowd were not impressed with the opposition.
"They always say the support us, but it's all about cost," said Jim Slevin, the vice presdent of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
And coming back year after year to make the argument punishes people who are sick from their heroic service, said William Romaka, the association's sergeant at arms. "Coming back and forth every year is not easy for people who are ill," Romaka said.
Republicans were expected offer several amendments to the bill Tuesday afternoon, including restrictions on covering abortion and illegal immigrants.