EXCLUSIVE: Federal 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund won't have enough money to help all survivors sickened at Ground Zero
The $7.3 billion dedicated to 9/11 survivors sickened by the toxic dust swirling around Ground Zero may not be enough to help everyone getting sick unless some drastic measures are taken, the Daily News has learned.
Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master of the federal 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, announced in a report due out Wednesday that the money set aside for survivors “may be insufficient to compensate all claims (including those filed and those anticipated to be filed) under the current policies and procedures guiding the calculation of awards.”
The bombshell announcement came in a “request for comment” asking for recommendations on how the fund can tighten its belt.
The request for comment — which will go out to the public, legislators and survivor advocate groups — is asking for feedback on whether the fund should begin removing “non-cancer conditions that should no longer be considered as presumptively severe and debilitating” from its lists, or lower its standard awards for noncancer conditions.
The fund is also seeking input on adjusting “the way the VCF calculates pre-death lost earnings for deceased victims,” among other items, according to the request for feedback.
The 21-page report indicates that payout and compensation claim data it has tabulated as of Aug. 31 “suggest the possibility that the $7.3 billion in total funding that has been appropriated to compensate claimants may be insufficient to compensate all claims.”
Based on the data, the fund predicts that roughly 5,500 new claims will be filed before the group's deadline on Dec. 18, 2020, although they fear that the number “is most certainly an undercount of potential new claims.”
Through Aug. 31, the fund has received 34,850 compensation claims from 9/11 illness sufferers since 2011 — a nearly 36% jump over the 25,695 claims it took in as of August 2017. Out of all the compensation claims filed, the fund has issued awards to about 20,000 of them, with average payouts in the range of $200,000 for personal injury claims to $700,000 for victims who have died from a 9/11 condition.
The fund has also seen a 94% jump in eligible “deceased claims” — requests for compensation by estates or family members of a 9/11 survivor who has already succumbed to illness. As of the end of August,the fund has approved eligibility on a total of 720 claims, compared with 371 as of August 2017. So far, nearly 500 payouts have been made on claims for those who have died.
In a letter posted on the fund website, Bhattacharyya assured 9/11 survivors that “there is no immediate funding crisis.”
“But, as I am required to do, I am monitoring our expenditures very closely,” she wrote. “An updated projections analysis, run using data as of August 31, 2018, suggests the possibility that, following current policies and procedures, the VCF may exceed its available funding prior to the currently designated program end on December 18, 2020, although I have not made any formal determination that funding may be insufficient.”
Survivor advocates are concerned that, as the money peters out, those who file for compensation from now until the end will get less money than those who filed earlier with the same problems.
Ben Chevat, the executive director of the 9/11 Health Watch, said he was gratified that the fund, the Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are “involving the 9/11 community in the difficult decisions they may have to face.”
“They need to manage this problem, but they are not the ones responsible for fixing it — it’s Congress,” said Chevat. “It was just a few weeks ago that we marked the 17th anniversary of the attacks, and many in Washington said ‘Never forget.’ Well, now is the time to show that.”
New York Sens. Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Pete King are already pushing for the fund to be fully funded.
“Twice, Congress has come together to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, most recently in 2015 to make the health care program for 9/11 first responders permanent,” the legislators said in a joint statement. “As we near the expiration of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund in 2020, our job is not done.
“As today's notice shows, allowing this program to expire and not fully funding the VCF would be devastating for those with new claims and the undoubtedly high number of 9/11 first responders and survivors who have yet to be diagnosed with a Ground Zero-related illness,” the legislators said. “It would send a cruel message that Congress is indifferent to our heroes’ suffering.”
Michael Barasch, an attorney who represents about 40% of individuals who have made successful VCF claims, said reports the VCF was running out of money “are of enormous concern.”
“Thousands of people who are now suffering from cancer, respiratory ailments, and other diseases already have claims before the VCF, and more people are coming forward every day. The number of people with 9/11-related cancers already exceeds the direst predictions of public health officials and will almost certainly become worse in the next few years.
“Members of the 9/11 community who suffer from debilitating and life-threatening diseases should not be further punished because they had the misfortune to get sick after some arbitrary date,” Barasch added. “Cancer and other diseases know no deadline.”