In a formal notice posted Oct. 2 in the Federal Register, the Special Master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund has raised the possibility that the $7.4-billion fund could run out of money before it satisfies the valid claims it will receive by its shutdown date in December 2020.
In what is known as a “Notice of Inquiry,” Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya is soliciting public comment over the next 60 days on how the U.S. Department of Justice-administered fund should handle a potential shortfall.
‘Funds May Be Insufficient’
“Current projections, using data as of Aug. 31, 2018, and at the current rate of dispersal, suggest a possibility that the funds that have been appropriated to compensate claimants pursuant to the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act…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,” according to the Federal Register entry.
The notice asks for public comment “on how the remaining funds might be allocated in a fair and equitable manner…with priority given, as the Reauthorization Act requires, to those claimants with the most debilitating conditions.”
In an open letter on the VCF website, Ms. Bhattacharyya said “there was no immediate funding crisis” but that there “is concern among some groups” that 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.”
The VCF has already paid out more than $4.2 billion to nearly 21,000 claimants.
8,800 Claims Pending
More than 8,800 claims are pending, with 1,214 denied and more than 3,000 marked as ineligible because the applicant failed to respond with additional documentation as requested.
VCF confirmed that it is taking a year to 18 months to process new claims. There is also an appeals process.
According to the World Trade Center Health Program, 10,000 first-responders and 9/11 survivors have already been diagnosed with cancers that have been linked to WTC toxic-air exposures. That number is expected to spike to 25,000 by 2025.
The program had to open an additional “surge clinic” this year to account for a 260-percent increase in program participants who lived or worked south of Canal St. or in Brooklyn Heights for the several months of the clean-up.
Public-health officials estimate there are roughly a half-million people who should be screened. Of the roughly 400,000 civilian survivors, fewer than 20,000 have been screened so far, although the rate of participation has started to climb.
Most ‘Responders’ Enrolled
Most of the 90,000 first-responders are in the health program, but there are still tens of thousands who have not signed up.
9/11 Health Watch, a non-profit labor-supported advocacy group, thanked Ms. Bhattacharyya and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for highlighting the diminishing fund, noting that “under current law, the Justice Department has the responsibility and must manage any funding shortfall.”
But the group asserted that “the potential lack of resources that are needed to continue to fully pay compensation claims to injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families, is Congress’s problem to solve.”
The statement continued, “It is not surprising that the number of people coming forward with illnesses and cancers related to their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero grows every single day. Every other day another 9/11 responder or survivor reportedly dies from 9/11-related cancer. The magnitude of the 9/11 cancer problem, though obvious today, was not entirely known in 2015 when the VCF reauthorization was funded.”
Puts Onus on Feds
“Remember it was the Federal Government that said the air was safe to breathe,” the advocacy group said, referring to pronouncements made less than a week after 9/11 by then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman. “It was also the Federal Government that refused for years to take responsibility, to do the research and respond to the health crisis that is facing so many.”
More than 42,000 people who are in the WTC Health program are suffering from at least one certified 9/11 condition caused by the toxins at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and the Shanksville, Pa. crash site, while a large percentage have multiple illnesses.
New York members of both houses of Congress wrote an open letter to their colleagues asking for permanent funding for the VCF, noting that “thousands of firefighters, police officers, Federal and local law enforcement officers, medical workers, construction workers, and other heroes selflessly rushed to Ground Zero to help.”
It continued, “They spent months digging through the pile, bravely searching for remains, and inhaling dangerous, toxic air in the entire time they were there. Now, right when scientists predicted it would happen, cancer rates in the 9/11 first-responder community are rising to new heights and the scourge of cancer continues to ruin the lives of first-responders and survivors, some of whom have been fighting these diseases for years, and others who are newly diagnosed every year.”
The appeal was signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as U.S.Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King.
Michael Barasch, one of the nation’s leading WTC lawyers, said that reports the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund could run out of money were of “enormous concern.”
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
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