Editor's Note: (Editor's note: This story was originally published on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. It has been updated to reflect recent comments by Stewart and McConnell.)
(CNN) What brought comedian and activist Jon Stewart to Capitol Hill last week to shame Congress is the fact that while new victims of 9/11 are identified every day, the fund set up to help them is about out of money.
That's a huge problem. The area in Lower Manhattan that was destroyed nearly 18 years ago has been rebuilt, but the attacks keep inflicting hurt on the people who came to the rescue. Thousands of first responders and others who helped in the aftermath of the terror attacks are only just now learning how sick they are.
After Stewart's impassioned plea, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed over the weekend that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund would be fully funded -- but nevertheless wondered aloud why Stewart was "all bent out of shape" on the issue.
Stewart responded furiously Monday night on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert.
"If you want to know why the 9/11 community is 'bent out of shape' over these past, let's call it 18 years, meet with them, tomorrow, as soon as possible, and don't make them beg for it," Stewart said. "You could pass this thing as a standalone bill tomorrow. Meet with them, I beg of you."
The fund was created in the months following the attacks and was initially active for two years, paying more than $7 billion in benefits to people who died or were injured in the immediate aftermath.
But first responders who spent weeks at the site breathing in noxious air clouded with debris from the collapsed buildings -- after New York and federal officials told them it was safe -- have since found debilitating illnesses and cancers festering in their bodies.
Congress and President Barack Obama agreed in 2010 to pay their medical costs, reopened the fund and set aside $2.7 billion to pay victims just learning about chronic health problems resulting from their work in 2001. In 2012, the government determined that cancers can be compensated as part of the fund.
It wasn't nearly enough money, however, and in 2015 Congress added $4.6 billion in funding, along with new controls and limits on some payments. Now, the special master who administers the fund anticipates that total payouts for claims filed before the measure expires in 2020 could be far higher: $11.6 billion, if a current uptick in claims -- largely caused by an increase in serious illnesses and deaths -- continues.
A proposal in Congress would permanently extend the victims fund. But support for the fund is nowhere near unanimous. When the fund was reopened, for instance, 160 members of Congress, nearly all Republicans and including current Vice President Mike Pence, opposed it. So did 42 senators. Their concerns were with the cost of the measure and how to pay for it. They ultimately agreed to a less generous version that became law.
The national debt and government spending were much bigger issues back in late 2010, when tea party furor helped Republicans end Democrats' House majority. Democrats regained control of the House this year. But even among Republicans, fear of government spending seems quaint after GOP lawmakers passed a tax bill in 2017 that is projected to explode the budget deficit.
The current proposal to permanently extend the fund would authorize it through 2089. It has plenty of support in the House, where it passed the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and McConnell indicated that Congress would address the fund.
"There is no way we won't address this problem appropriately," McConnell said in the Fox News interview over the weekend. "We have in the past. We will in the future."
The World Trade Center Health Program, the separate health care program related to the victims fund that's administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was made permanent in 2015. It has documented the troubling increase in illnesses, including cancer.
In July of 2011, it had identified just more than 56,000 first responders, volunteers and others with health problems stemming from 9/11. By March of 2019, that number had risen to more than 95,000, with roughly 500 to 900 new cases being identified each month. The program has identified 2,355 deaths associated with 9/11-related health problems. That's nearly as many as died at the World Trade Center because of the crashes.
Chronic and debilitating problems with sinuses, reflux and asthma are the most-diagnosed ailments, but as of May, more than 12,500 cases of cancer had also been diagnosed.
As of May, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund had paid out 28,403 claims totaling $5.2 billion in the eight years since it reopened. There were 16,850 claims that hadn't yet been decided or were under review.
The mean payment for a personal injury claim was $243,041.76, while the mean death benefit was $678,484.33, according to data released by the victims fund in May.