Jon Stewart Urges Lawmakers To Make 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund Permanent

NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- Lawmakers on Monday will be introducing a new bill called the Never Forget the Heroes Act to replenish the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, which is running out of money.

A group of about 40 people, including 9/11 advocate John Feal and comedian Jon Stewart, will be walking the halls of Congress to push for additional funding.

By Feal's count this will be his 269th trip to the Capitol. This is the third different bill being lobbied in Congress and he says it has been a battle every time.

"It's insulting that we have to go to D.C. and get legislation passed," Feal said. 

"It's embarrasing, it's not embarrasing for the people doing it, it's embarrasing for the country and for the lawmakers who over these 18 years haven't been able to get this thing right," said Stewart who has been a regular presence in Washington fighting to compensate sickened responders. "It's unfortunate and it's embarassing that they need to have somebody draw attention to them."

Feal wants lawmakers to understand what's at stake.

"I'm bringing out not only responders, I'm bringing survivors, I'm bringing widows, I'm bringing somebody from different entities, and the diversity of this group will show that 9/11 and its impact and its aftermath had an effect on so many different levels of people," Feal said.

Last year, the fund received an average of nearly 1,000 new claims a month.

Nearly 40,000 people have applied to the federal fund for people with illnesses potentially related to being at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the 2001 terror attacks. About 19,000 of those claims are pending and thousands more are expected to apply before the fund expires in 2020.

"Not a day does by where I don't get another 10 to 12 new people with cancer," attorney Michael Barasch said.

Nearly $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.3 billion fund. Supporters are seeking another $5 billion.

"If you're allowing people in Washington to spend money at a rapid rate, then they can spend $8 billion, $9 billion, $10 billion on saving the lives of our greatest resources," Feal said.

Without the money, awards will be slashed dramatically, cutting future payments by 50 to 70 percent. 

"Our goal in Washington is to get a bipartisan sponsorship for the continuation or extension of the Victims Compensation Fund," said FDNY Union President Gerard Fitzgerald. "It is set to go to 2020 but because of the amount of people that have claims in that money is disappearing faster than they thought."

Stewart is hoping to get Congress to focus on the issue.

"I have one monkey trick and that is to hopefully help shine a light or bring some attention to what these men and women are doing in the shadows," he said. "The hope is that the senators and Congress people are going to recognize that this is an utterly unecessary exercise that they're putting these men and women through."

Stewart said they now have an opportunity to make tings right. 

"The program has been shown to be effective, it's shown that it works, it's shown that it's incredibly well run, and that it's necessary and urgent," Stewart said. 

The fund was created by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for the deaths and illnesses linked to the toxic dust that swirled through Lower Manhattan after terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in 2001.

The collapse of the trade center in 2001 sent a cloud of thick dust billowing over Lower Manhattan. Fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.

In the 17 years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.

Scientists can't say definitively whether toxins at the site gave people cancer. One study published last year found that overall mortality rates among nearly 30,000 rescue and recovery workers weren't elevated. But researchers have raised concern an unusual number of suicides among first responders and more deaths than expected from brain cancers and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

(© 2019 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report)