Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. It is, obviously enough, fitting to look back on that terrible day and reflect upon it and its ramifications.
One matter that is of special importance is the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to be suffering from an unusual high level of health complications. Given that they were exposed to burning materials and various other hazards, this is hardly shocking. What is, however, rather shocking is the fact that it took congress nearly a decade to work out a health care bill for the first responders. What is rather disturbing is that Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, said he would block the bill. He gave two reasons. First, he wanted it to be funded through spending cuts. Second, he claimed that the bill had not gone through the proper committee process. His second reason was also backed by fellow Republican Mike Enzi.
In regards to the first reason, it struck me as rather sad that after Republicans had “wrapped” themselves in 9/11 and spent billions on “homeland security” and two wars, a major Republican would do such a thing. While I do understand the need to be fiscally responsible, suddenly finding this fiscal faith when it comes to the 9/11 responders seems rather morally questionable. Surely those people earned the right by their sacrifices. To support this, one needs merely to turn to the speeches in which the Republicans spoke of 9/11 and the heroism of the first responders.
In regards to the second reason, Coburn actually missed the committee meeting in question (and he was a member of the committee). Hence, his complaint was spurious. While following due process is important (although it was often bypassed in the name of national security), it seems rather petty and mean of him to have used such a point to try to delay or block the bill.
While the bill eventually passed, there were some significant changes. First, the money allocated to the bill was reduced. Apparently the new found sense of fiscal responsibility arrived to late to prevent the massive spending under Bush but just in time to cut back spending on health care for the first responders (who had been praised as great heroes by the very folks who insisted on cutting the budget). Second, the Victims Compensation Fund was set to close significantly earlier and various other limitations were set.
Coburn justified his actions (after acknowledging the heroism of the first responders) by claiming that they prevented the bill from “robbing future generations of opportunity.” On the one hand, Coburn does have a point: spending should be carefully reviewed to ensure that the need is legitimate and that the cost will not be too burdensome. Oddly enough, this rather laudable principle seems to be generally overlooked in other cases. In regards to spending on the war on terror, there seems to have been little concern paid to determining whether the spending would be effective (generally not) and whether or not it would burden future generations (definitely so). The main justification given for funding the war on terror is that doing so saves lives. However, terrorism is rather unlikely cause of death for Americans. Except, of course, for the 9/11 responders who became sick because of their exposure to a devil’s cocktail of toxins. There is a certain irony in a congress that funds x-ray machines for full body scans to “protect” us against the minute chance that someone will try to smuggle a bomb on a flight in his underwear (again) yet balks at medical care for people who are, in fact, in danger from the actions of terrorists. Of course, helping the first responders does not, in general, funnel money to the folks who help fund the re-election of politicians.
A final point of concern is that the bill leaves out coverage of cancer. While we went to war in Iraq without checking the facts, folks in congress claimed that a causal link had not been established between the exposure on 9/11 and the cancers that are appearing in the responders. After all, if these people did not get their cancer from 9/11, then there would be no reason for the taxpayers to foot the bill for their care.
One obvious response is that even if the cancer was not caused by their exposure during the 9/11 events, these people should simply be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, treating sick or dying people who put their lives on the line for others hardly seems to be a waste of money. If arguments are needed for how important this event was and how great these people are, one can merely look at what the Republicans said about them, at least prior to the debate over the bill.
A second reply is that it seems reasonable to believe that being exposed to that devil’s cocktail of toxins that arose from the wreckage could very well cause cancer. There is also the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to suffer from cancer at a higher than expected rate. Of course, given that our understanding of cancer is limited, there are grounds for “cancer skepticism” (which has been fueled by the tobacco and other industries). I suspect that one reason that congress has been reluctant to provide coverage for cancer in this case is that doing so would seem to admit that the various chemicals and toxins the responders were exposed to do cause cancer. This would, obviously enough, present various liability problems and could also be used in backing up stronger regulations regarding pollutants. This sort of result would not, of course, please the corporations who donate so lavishly to re-election funds. Then again, perhaps it is just about saving money by not paying for cancer treatments.
A third reply is that there does seem to be a causal link. Sanjay Gupta has been investigating this and reports what he has learned in “Terror in the Dust.” If such a link has been established, then the 9/11 responders should receive coverage for cancer. After all, this would show that at least some of their cancers were caused by the events of 9/11 and that would seem to warrant the state picking up the tab. At the very least, the Republicans owe them for years of using them for political purposes (the Democrats too, only to a lesser extent).