By ALEX KATZ
It took years of lobbying and partisan bickering, but the 9/11 Zadroga Act to help ailing Ground Zero responders finally took effect today.
The law provides $4.3 billion in guaranteed federal funding to cover health costs and financial compensation for emergency responders, recovery workers, volunteers, and residents who were affected by the attacks almost 10 years ago.
Advocates celebrated with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting against a backdrop of Star Spangled Banners at Mount Sinai’s 9/11 health clinic this morning.
National and city pols were also on hand, including Mayor Bloomberg, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Charlie Rangel, and Carolyn Maloney.
“This is an historic milestone, not only for the more than 36,000 Americans who lost their health as a result of 9/11 and are in the program, but also for our moral obligation to care for those who rise to the defense of our nation in a time of war,” Maloney said.
The Manhattan Democrat — who was introduced at the event as the “bulldog of the Upper East Side” — helped write the landmark legislation along with Nadler and Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), spearheading the fight for its approval in the House and ultimately the Senate.
The original bill’s price tag was scaled back from $7.4 billion as part of a compromise with conservatives in both parties, which allowed the legislation to pass through Congress and get President Obama’s signature in early January.
“As you all know, nothing gets done in Washington easily,” Bloomberg told the crowd.
“There’s no way to think that we can ever fully repay the thousands of first responders who fearlessly charged into the towers as others rushed out,” he added. “But we can give them the care they need and the care that they deserve.”
Rhonda Villamia, 56, of Sunnyside, volunteered at Ground Zero for nine months immediately following the attacks. Working with both the Red Cross and Salvation Army, she helped support the first responders by cooking meals and lending a hand wherever it was needed.
But all the time she spent down there caused her to develop respiratory and thyroid problems.
“I was down there to do what I thought was right,” Villamia said after the ceremony in between tears. “I didn’t think about any of the possible consequences after the dust literally settled.”
The Zadroga law — named for NYPD detective James Zadroga, who died of 9/11-related illnesses — will cover Villamia and tens of thousands of other responders. But with the funding set to expire in five years, she insists the fight isn’t over.
“We now need to prove that we’ve needed this coverage all along, and we’ll continue to need it moving forward,” she said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”