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Our Opinion: Will Congress betray 9/11 first responders seeking medical care?

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In 2001, a grieving nation vowed it would “never forget” the 9/11 hijackers’ brutality or the first responders’ indomitable courage.

Less than two decades later, our elected leaders have developed amnesia where the latter lesson’s concerned.

The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund is starved for cash, and its administrators are slashing payments to survivors in order to avoid drawing it down to its last dollar. As of mid-February, roughly $5 billion of the $7.3 billion fund had been depleted with 19,000 unpaid claims looming.

Claims made before Feb. 1 will be paid at half of their assessed value and those made later will receive 30 percent of what America’s heroes are due. That means firefighters, police officers, medics and contractors who suffered debilitating illnesses in the World Trade Center’s toxic rubble are seeing their compensation cut by 70 percent.

The federal 9/11 fund was previously shuttered under a limited window for acute illness claims, but symptoms of disease linked to Ground Zero exposure began surfacing in some responders years later. In 2010, Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to reauthorize the victim compensation fund.

The fund is now set to expire in December 2020. Even with reduced payouts, it’s unclear the money will last that long.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat, has introduced legislation to replenish the depleted balance and extend the fund through 2090. But despite a roster of 228 U.S. House co-sponsors, H.R. 1327 faces an uphill climb. GovTrack gives the bill a 47 percent chance of passage based on predictions from data science firm Skopos Labs.

Still in thrall with the Mueller report and White House palace intrigue, the Capitol Hill press corps has largely failed to raise the alarm. The bill’s highest-profile supporter isn’t a politician, pundit or commentator. It’s none other than comedian Jon Stewart.

The former “Daily Show” host has championed the cause of 9/11 survivors and recently threw his weight behind a petition calling for the legislation’s swift passage. Stewart has been a consistent advocate, appearing as a guest on his former Comedy Central show now hosted by Trevor Noah to shame Congress into taking action.

In December 2015, Stewart accompanied New York firefighters to the Russell Senate Office Building to ask senators who made “never forget” statements after 9/11 why they weren’t sponsoring a bill to permanently extend the Zadroga Act. Staffers hemmed and hawed and shooed him out of offices.

“Very rarely did the people appear,” Stewart said. “They’re like in many ways meerkats or prairie dogs. They lift their heads up, but if they sense danger — something coming with information they don’t like — boom, right back into the hole.”

After Stewart spoke to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and recorded a memorable exchange between the senator and 9/11 survivor John Feal, Portman signed on as a sponsor. “Maybe shame does work,” Stewart mused.

There’s plenty of it to go around. More than three years later, the Zadroga Act still hasn’t been reauthorized.

To date, the survivors’ fund has paid roughly $11 billion in claims. That’s a lot of money, but it’s less than 5 percent of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars’ cost, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated at $2.4 trillion.

To “never forget” 9/11 means to take care of its survivors, not just to wage war. Caring for injured first responders should be a priority for every patriotic American who waved flags, wore ribbons, wept for the victims and vowed to “never forget.”

As of this writing, just five of North Carolina’s 11 sitting congressmen have co-sponsored H.R. 1327. They are Reps. Patrick McHenry, Alma Adams, Ted Budd, Richard Hudson and David Price. North Carolina has 13 U.S. House seats, but special elections are underway in the 3rd and 9th congressional districts.

The six who have yet to sign on are Reps. G.K. Butterfield, George Holding, Virginia Foxx, Mark Walker, David Rouzer and Mark Meadows.

Call them. Write them. Shame them. It’s time these lawmakers stood up for 9/11’s forgotten heroes.