From critic to advocate: Jon Stewart throws weight behind New York firefighters

With healthcare benefits for 9/11 first responders set to expire at the end of this month, Jon Stewart campaigns outside the Capitol Wednesday with other advocates.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Comedian Jon Stewart, accompanied by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, and New York City first responders, speaks during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, calling for the extension of the the Zadroga Heath & Compensation Act that provides health care and compensation to 9/11 first responders and victims will come to an end if not renewed by Congress.

Comedian Jon Stewart joined members of the New York City Fire Department to urge Congress to extend healthcare benefits for first responders after the 9/11 attacks at a rally Wednesday in front of the Capitol.

In 2010, Mr.Stewart was influential in persuading Congress to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which had been stuck in congressional purgatory since 2006 because of the bill’s $7.4 billion price tag.

Over 70,000 of the police officers and firefighters who worked for months to clean up the site after the terrorist attacks suffer from serious ailments that doctors say are linked to their exposure to harmful materials at Ground zero. The act expires at the end of the month, leaving many with financial burdens.

"You get ordered to go there, you get ordered to stay there, you get ordered to do a lot of crazy work, and then a couple years later, you get sick," Kenny Specht, a retired New York firefighter who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after working at Ground Zero, told Reuters.

“I’m embarrassed for our country, I’m embarrassed for New York, I’m embarrassed that you, after serving so selflessly and with such heroism, have to come down here and convince people to do what’s right for the illnesses and difficulties that you suffered because of your heroism and your selflessness,” Stewart told fellow protestors at the rally.

Advocates pushing for a permanent extension of the bill are hopeful that the former 16-year host of “The Daily Show” will be just as influential this time around as he was in 2010.

"We pitched a solid eight innings and then Jon Stewart came in and closed in 2010," John Feal, founder of the Feal Good Foundation, an organization that advocates for injured 9/11 emergency personnel, told Reuters.

While the bill has more bipartisan support than before, proponents are concerned that House Speaker John Boehner, (R) of Ohio, who was opposed to the Zadroga Act in 2010, will hold up the bill this time around as well. 

“During the last five years, we’ve documented [the cancer], we’ve studied it, we can go back to our colleagues and say, ‘This program works.’ ” US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York and the bill's sponsor, told U.S. News and World Report. “This is proven to save lives and we must ensure that it is permanent.” 

This report includes material from Reuters.

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