More than nine years after the September 11th attacks, the Senate may be on the verge of finally voting on legislation that would grant $6.2 billion medical coverage and compensation to thousands of 9/11 first responders exposed to toxic substances at Ground Zero. The House passed a $7.4 billion version of the bill in September. But the Senate version has been held up by a Republican filibuster. We speak with John Feal, a former construction worker and 9/11 first responder. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: More than nine years after the September 11th attacks, the Senate may be on the verge of finally voting on legislation that would grant health benefits to 9/11 first responders.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act would provide billions of dollars in aid and medical coverage to the more than 20,000 9/11 first responders suffering the health consequences of being exposed to toxic substances at Ground Zero.
The House passed a $7.4 billion version of the bill in September. But the Senate version has been held up by a Republican filibuster. New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand announced a revised bill last week that reduced the cost to $6.2 billion over 10 years. They hope to have enough votes to bring the measure to a vote in the Senate today.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has said he’ll likely block the measure again. That’s Dr. Coburn. Speaking on Fox News on Tuesday, he said the Senate needs time to consider the bill.
SEN. TOM COBURN: This bill hasn’t even been through a committee. We haven’t had the debate in our committee on this bill to know if it is the best thing to do. We haven’t had the testimony to know whether. This is a bill that’s been drawn up and forced through Congress at the end of the year on a basis to solve a problem that we didn’t have time to solve and we didn’t get done. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to pass a bill — maybe, doubtful — and then we’re going to have to come back and fix it, and we’re going to waste a whole bunch more money and not fix the real problem, which is taking care of those people who are so desperately dependent upon us. So, their hearts are in a good place, their heads not in a good place. We can do this next year, and we should.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Coburn, that’s Senator Coburn from Oklahoma. He claims the bill was never considered by a congressional committee, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did in fact hold a hearing on the bill in June. And Senator Coburn sits on that very committee.
On Tuesday, 9/11 first responders headed to Washington, D.C. to call on the Senate to pass the bill. Speaking at a news conference with the Ground Zero workers, New York Senator Chuck Schumer urged his colleagues to vote on the measure.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: It is all too easy to say, "I’d like to dot the 'i' differently or cross the 't' differently, and let’s start over.’ But when you have cancer, you can’t start over. And so, all these heroes are asking for is an up-or-down vote before Christmas. Waiting 'til next year would be a lump of coal, and we will not stand for it. Enough, enough, enough with the delays. These are American heroes. This is a matter of life and death. They didn't wait a minute before rushing to Ground Zero, but their government has been waiting nine years, and they cannot wait any longer.
AMY GOODMAN: If the bill passes in the Senate, it will have to go back to the House to get approval before the end of the session. House members will reportedly hang around the Capitol at least through the evening today to quickly sign off on any Senate-backed plan.
John Feal is with us today, former construction worker. He responded after the 9/11 attacks, racing to Ground Zero to help out. Several days later, he lost his foot working there. He now suffers respiratory problems. He’s a leading advocate for 9/11 responders and the president of the FealGood Foundation. He’s part of the group of 9/11 first responders in D.C. right now to urge the Senate to pass the Zadroga bill. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.
John Feal, what is your response, first, to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who himself is a doctor, who is blocking the bill?
JOHN FEAL: Well, Amy, one, thank you for having me.
I was amazed by Dr. Coburn’s response, because before he’s a senator, he’s a doctor. And I think he goes against his oath as a doctor to seriously consider helping people that have illnesses. And I’m not the smartest man in the world, but as a commonsense thinker, it just didn’t — I couldn’t digest it or wrap my arms around it that a doctor would be so against helping people that are seriously ill.
And I just don’t think the doctor has his facts straight, because there’s been 22 committee hearings in the House, and there’s been one in the Senate. This bill is over nine years old. So, they can’t hide behind excuses anymore, Amy. You know, they didn’t like to pay for it, they didn’t like this, they didn’t like this. A couple years ago, the bill was $10.5 billion. Now it’s $6.2 billion. How much more can it go before you really can’t help anybody anymore?
But, Amy, I’m confident that the bill gets done today and passed, and it gets to the House and gets done in the House. And I’m not confident; I’m just — I’ve willed this to the finish line. And I’m going home on the bus today with some amazing people, and we’re going to be smiling.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to you, John. Nine-eleven happened. The terror attacks took place. Where were you when it happened?
JOHN FEAL: Well, Amy, I got there the following night. So I was doing another large construction job upstate New York. So, I’m in no way a hero. In fact, I went to therapy for a year not to be called a hero. I wound up losing half of my foot. I spent 11 weeks in the hospital with gangrene after 8,000 pounds of steel crushed my foot on September 17th. But my injury pales in comparison to these illnesses that these men and women suffer. My injury is gruesome and horrific to look at, but these invisible diseases, like these cancers and these severe respiratory problems and sarcoidosis, pulmonary fibrosis, and the post-traumatic, which is killing these people left and right, is invisible, and you can’t see it. And we have lost 990 people since 9/11 to 9/11-related illnesses. And if that’s not enough fact to pass this bill, then I’m dumbfounded by what it actually takes to get something done in D.C.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview that I did with a sick 9/11 worker, Joe Picurro. He was an ironworker from New Jersey. He was 34 years old when he went to Ground Zero after 9/11. He died in October from his illnesses. I spoke to Joe by telephone, September 11, 2009. This is some of what he had to say.
JOE PICURRO: You know, like my doctor said, I have the lungs of a 95-year-old man. Now, you know, what she said about age, you know, we’re aging and our bodies are aging way before they’re supposed to. You know, and like I said, the doctor gave me a year or so to live, you know, and a year or two to live.
And, you know, that’s — you know, we need to get this straight. We need to straighten this out. We need to get the funding. We need to get the James Zadroga bill passed. You know, I mean, I’ve been saying this year after year — so has Ms. Maloney and also Ms. Moline — that it has to be passed. And yet, it never seems to make it. It never seems to get passed. And I don’t understand why.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Picurro. He died this past October. John —
JOHN FEAL: Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, did you know Joe?
JOHN FEAL: I was at Joe’s — Joe was one of my — when I started the foundation, Joe was one of my first clients. And I hate to use the word "client," because Joe was a hero. And Joe was one of the first people I financially donated to. I went to Joe’s funeral. And Joe was — I’ve been to 44 funerals in the last four-and-a-half years, and Joe was number 43. And just a couple weeks ago in New Jersey, we did an event for Laura, where I put a bucket in the middle of a gymnasium and I took advantage of the people there and I raised about $1,800 in about three minutes, just because I took a white bucket out. And I gave it to Laura Picurro, because as soon as Joe died, Laura’s benefits were cut off.
AMY GOODMAN: What would this bill do?
JOHN FEAL: Save lives. The bill is half healthcare, and it’s half compensation. And the centers of excellence that treat us would remain open for so many years without a yearly budget, so that it cannot only collect data and monitor us, but use preventive medicine. What a concept. And they could do scientific research for the illnesses that are coming out now. Then the other half of the bill, these men and women who risked their lives without prejudice would be compensated for the financial burden on not having any work over the last nine years because of their illnesses. They can’t even afford to put gas in their car to get to the doctor or go to their chemotherapy appointment. They can’t put food on the table. And, you know, everybody thinks 9/11 happened and it’s over, but 9/11 and its devastation is running havoc through their families — you know, secondary post-traumatic, people are getting divorced, kids are in therapy. I mean, this is just cruel and unusual punishment.
AMY GOODMAN: John —
JOHN FEAL: We’ve gone eight years.
AMY GOODMAN: You set up the FealGood Foundation. Your last name is spelled F-E-A-L, the FealGood Foundation.
JOHN FEAL: Yes, ma’am. Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have helped many people very personally. You gave your kidney to who?
JOHN FEAL: It was a no-brainer. I get about two or three hundred emails a day on average. And somebody emailed me back in 2006 and said, "I think what you’re doing to help people is great. Can you link me to your website, because I need a kidney?" And he was responder. And I said, "No, you could just have mine." And he’s like — he used a bunch of curse words, saying, "Don’t fool around and kid like that." And I still got the email on — taped to my refrigerator. And a couple weeks later, we went and got tested. And I wasn’t a hundred percent match, but I could have gave it to him, but there was a chance of rejection. So the hospital said, "Well, why don’t you give it to somebody? We’ll make sure he gets a better one." We wound up doing a six-person swap. So, in essence, I got to help three people. And listen, I’ve never won Lotto, but that was the best feeling in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Truly remarkable, John.
JOHN FEAL: And August 30, 2007 — no, I’m just an average guy who believes that you’ve got to help people less fortunate. You know, as Americans, we have extra money, we have extra food, and basically we have extra body parts. And if — I don’t know what happened after 9/11, because everybody was so united. This country came together, and you could smell, not only feel, the love and patriotism in the air. Somewhere along the line, this country lost that loving feeling. And I think it’s because of poor politics and leadership and reckless politics that this country is going in the wrong direction. And this great nation, the tenacity and the resolve and the testament after the worst horrific attack ever, came together, and I’d like to see that happen again. And it’s up to the White House and the Senate and the Congress to start behaving themselves and doing what’s right by the American people, so the American people can once again get on track with their lives and start helping each other.
AMY GOODMAN: John, you wrote a letter to President Obama in August, and it was around the Islamic cultural center in the Ground Zero area —
JOHN FEAL: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — though not at Ground Zero. What did you say?
JOHN FEAL: Well, I’ve written a few letters to Barack Obama, and I feel like I know him without ever meeting him. Listen, I voted for the man, and I believe in his politics. But when you come out and you speak about a mosque, which, if you ask the 9/11 responder community, it’s not that important to us — what’s important to us is this bill. This bill saves lives. And, you know, I want to talk about this bill, because this bill is paid for. It doesn’t add to the deficit. It doesn’t add taxes to the American people. In fact, the new paid for helps the deficit, it lowers it. Now, we’re in two wars because of 9/11. Those wars are not paid for. The Bush tax cuts are not paid for. Every bill that’s gone before us and everything that’s gone before us over the last few years is not paid for. We have a bill that’s paid for, and yet everybody still hides behind their ideologies.
People need to start acting like Americans and man up on their patriotism, because men and women are sick and dying. And wow, my mother raised me to help those less fortunate. I didn’t need 9/11 to know right from wrong. I needed everybody to show how my mother raised me. And, Amy, I hope I’m wrong, but I truly hope that they prove me wrong today and vote yes on this bill. And I’m confident that this bill goes on the floor today, and I’m confident that we get it done today. I have never wavered once. I said it would get done by the end of the year, and we’re going to get it done.
AMY GOODMAN: John, the —
JOHN FEAL: You know, the leadership of Senator — go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Gillibrand and Schumer have brought down the cost of the bill from $7.4, which is what the House voted on in September —
JOHN FEAL: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — to, what was it, $6.2 billion. What have you lost there?
JOHN FEAL: Correct. Well, really, nothing. You don’t really lose anything, because once the bill passes and the programs are up and running, they run out of money, they go back and get more. And again, if that’s the concession — listen, even if it was $5 billion, it’s still a bill and it’s still a program up and running. That 's what's more important. The centers of excellence need to stay open and need to be fluid, and they need to get the VCF with a special master in place. So, whether it’s $7 million or $5 billion or $6 billion, I’m OK with that, because at the end of the day, while the bill is no longer a 10 — I give it a seven — a seven is better than a zero. And a seven saves lives. And Senator Gillibrand and Schumer have been our champions. But more importantly, never test the — never mistake the resolve and the character of the 9/11 community, because it’s because to them this bill is where it is today.
AMY GOODMAN: John, you have been walking the halls of Congress yesterday with other construction workers, police officers, firefighters, the first responders who went to Ground Zero after September 11th. Have you met with any of those who are refusing to sign off on this bill? Have any of you spoken to Coburn, for example?
JOHN FEAL: Well, we were in the doctor’s office yesterday. We spoke to his staff. And they told us his stance. We told them our stance. And listen, Amy, it was my 89th trip to D.C. over the last five years, and I document and mark everything. So, I’ve met with these senators before and their chiefs of staff and their legislative aides. I think Dr. Coburn and Republican leadership is going to have a moment of clarity today, and I’m confident that Senator Gillibrand and Schumer are going to work out a deal where we get this bill on the floor and passed today.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Fox News in all of this, John?
JOHN FEAL: The role of Fox News? I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: In how it’s driven this story?
JOHN FEAL: Listen, I think over the last few days, Fox News has done a great job. And, you know, watching the anchors on Fox News drive this story today at home base has helped. And, you know, let’s call it like it is. Jon Stewart started a media tidal wave, and it took a comedian to get the national news to show everybody who the real comedian was. And I believe that was in D.C. So, you know, who’s laughing now? I mean, it took Jon Stewart from The Daily Show to do all of this. And I spoke to Mr. Stewart the day before the show, and I was in D.C. the day of the show, because I was here lobbying again. And I had the chance to go on his show, and I said, "Mr. Stewart, you’re on my bucket list of things to do, but I’ve got to finish what I started." And so, they put the four guys on the show. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Stewart had his whole show —
JOHN FEAL: — I’m proud of all four of those guys that I put on that show.
AMY GOODMAN: — The Daily Show, the whole show devoted to this. John, thank you very much for being with us.
JOHN FEAL: Amy, thank you for having me. God bless you. I love your show.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks. John Feal, construction worker, first responder at Ground Zero. He himself suffers serious health consequences, lost a part of his foot, gave a kidney to someone in need, and suffers respiratory problems. He is among many 9/11 responders who are pushing hard in Congress right now for the Senate to pass the James Zadroga bill. He’s president of the FealGood Foundation. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.