Smaller 9/11 First Responders Will Pass the Senate Today

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 22 2010 1:26 PM

Smaller 9/11 First Responders Will Pass the Senate Today

Jonathan Karl got the quote from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the last holdout on the bill to provide health benefits to 9/11 first responders, after he got a compromise he could live with. The bill that passes today will cost $4.2 billion over 10 years, $2 billion down from the bill that got stuck.

I'll stand in the way of anything that doesn't make sense and doesn't spend our money wisely, so you know, it doesn't matter what the issue is, we're in such a hole, Jon, that we don't have the luxury of not getting things right. And so we've come to an agreement that costs less, doesn't allow double-dipping, doesn't allow exorbitant lawyer fees, and we've worked it out and so we're going to take care of the folks, but we're going to do it in a way that doesn't punish the people that are going to pay the bill.

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Since New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are dubbing this a "Christmas miracle," I will leave it to someone else to measure how many sizes Coburn's heart grew. My rough guess: 4.2 billion sizes. More Gillibrand, via Luke Russert: "Our Republican colleagues have negotiated in good-faith to forge a workable final package."

Gillibrand is up for re-election in 2012. Between this and DADT repeal, has any 2012 candidate shored his or herself up so strongly?

UPDATE: Here's Coburn's rationale for the vote:

"I’m pleased the sponsors of this bill agreed to lower costs dramatically, offset the bill, sunset key provisions and take steps to prevent fraud.  Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity.  I’m pleased this agreement strikes a fair balance and improves the bill the majority attempted to rush through at the last minute," Dr. Coburn said.

The agreement includes the following changes:

- Reduction in Costs.  This agreement saves taxpayers $6.2 billion from the substitute amendment and $7.5 billion from the House-passed bill.  In the deal, costs are reduced to $4.2 billion in the 10-year window and eliminated outside the 10-year window.  Of that amount, $1.5 billion will go to health benefits, while $2.7 billion will go to compensation.

- Permanently Close the Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) after 5 years.  The original bill kept the VCF open through 2031, making it extremely susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse and incurring significant long-term costs.  The fund is now open only through 2016 and has language to expressly say that it is permanently closed at after 5 years.

- Limitations on Attorneys Fees.  Places a hard cap for attorneys’ fees at 10 percent of the total award and allows the Special Master to reduce attorneys fees he believes are excessive.

- Prevents Reinstatement of Civil Claims.  Prevent claimants who are rejected from the VCF from then pursuing a civil lawsuit.  This is consistent with the earlier VCF policy.

- Limitation on Infrastructure Costs.   Explicitly excludes construction and capital projects from health care spending in the bill.

- Commitment to ensure eligible individuals cannot "double-dip" on benefits.   The Senators all agreed to get in writing from the Special Master that he will include workers compensation benefits in collateral sources of benefits that he must offset from potential compensation awards.

- More Accountability.  Require claims-level data reporting to provide accountability and opportunity for oversight, as well as GAO reports to determine less expensive mechanisms to provide nationwide care, pharmaceutical access, and health information technology promotion.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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