How Comprehensive Is the 9/11 Health Bill?

Did Democrats cave in the end?

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The Senate's last-minute passage of a $4.3 billion health care package yesterday for 9/11 first responders has been deemed a "Christmas miracle." This may be true, but like all miraculous legislative happenings, it required shrewd political horse-trading. Specifically: cutting $1.9 billion in costs from the $6.2 billion version of the bill that failed a senate test vote earlier this month, a number already below the $7.4 billion in benefits and compensation approved by the House. And while $4.3 billion is better than nothing, some suggested the Democrats' Christmas miracle was more of a Christmas cave-in.

  • Coburn Victorious  Salon's Alex Pareene says the big winner yesterday was not New York City cops and firefighters, but Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who had been threatening to block the bill. "[Coburn's] dropping his threat because he won," writes Pareene. The decision by Democrats to "pass the bill using unanimous consent, so that they [could] finish the lame duck session before Christmas" meant "negotiators were forced to acquiesce to Coburn's demand that the bill become significantly less generous." Because of Coburn, the bill has been pared down to "$1.5 for benefits and $2.7 for compensation" and contains language stipulating that the Victims Compensation Fund "permanently close after five years," down from twenty years in the original version.
  • Buffaloed  The Washington Post's Ezra Klein doesn't understand why Democrats allowed Coburn to bamboozle them into reducing the size and scope of the bill so drastically. His objections were those of somebody "throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks." Klein cites Coburn's contention that the bill would "crowd out" private insurance companies as indicative of the kind of non-issues Democrats yielded ground on. "The idea that "crowd-out" would be a problem when you're dealing with a population as small and unique as 9/11 responders is laughable," writes Klein, especially considering the GOP "just fought to extend $700 billion in tax cuts for the rich."
  • Big Flaw?  A Democratic aide tells Greg Sargent that ending the fund after five years is just a way to "cap costs and set a deadline," but The Washington Post blogger remains skeptical. Only time will tell "whether the reduction in the amounts for benefits and compensation means a cut in benefits for individual first responders or a reduction in the number eligible."
  • Limited Scope   FOX's Trish Turner says the new version of the bill contains stricter language with regard to oversight and how funds are administered. These measures include "GAO reports to determine less expensive mechanisms to provide nationwide care, pharmaceutical access, and health information technology promotion" and a written guarantee to all Senators from the fund's Special Master that he will "include workers compensation benefits in collateral sources of benefits that he must offset from potential compensation awards" in order to deter double-dipping.
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