In the biggest step toward assuring those infected with life-threatening illnesses due to exposure to deadly toxins in the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s destruction that they and their families will be financially covered, President Trump July 29 reauthorized funding for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund until 2092 after the U.S. Senate voted 97 to 2 for it six days earlier.
The VCF is open to the 90,000 first-responders who worked or volunteered in and around the lower Manhattan site, as well as to the 400,000 survivors who resided, worked or went to school below Canal St. at the time of the attack and the several months of cleanup work that followed.
‘So Important for Families’
The actions in D.C. were lauded by Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniform Firefighters Association, and James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
“This was so important for the families of the sick and the dying,” said Mr. Fitzgerald in a phone interview. “For them there will be some peace.”
“I think there is just a sense of relief for every Firefighter, fire officer that worked down in that toxic environment,” said Mr. Lemonda. “We can all rest easy that if we are diagnosed with a serious illness, our families will be taken care of.”
The VCF’s Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya called the signing “a momentous day.”
“The entire VCF team is ready and eager to move forward into the next phase of this successful program with renewed energy and a reinvigorated clarity of purpose, and, as always, we remain dedicated to serving the needs of the 9/11 community,” she said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. “By this year’s anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we hope to have begun the payment process on unreduced awards for all previously-reduced claims.”
In the statement, the DOJ said the process to notify the nearly 1,700 people who had received reduced awards would begin “immediately” and hope to complete it by Sept. 11.
Until now, the 9/11 VCF has needed renewals every few years. It had been due to expire in December 2020.
On 9/11, 343 FDNY members died. Since then, close to 200 FDNY members have died from WTC-exposure-related diseases.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the Northwell Health Queens World Trade Center Program, told a House panel in June that the WTC Health Program had seen an exponential increase in a variety of cancers and that “soon the day will come when there are more people that died of WTC-related diseases after 9/11 than perished that horrible day [2,973].”
More Than Half Ailing
“Over 50 percent of the firefighters who worked at the WTC have developed a persistent respiratory condition,” she added
Before the final Senate vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his Republican colleagues to back the bill. He invoked the memory of NYPD Bomb Squad Detective Luis Alvarez, who used the final weeks of his life to lobby and testify before Congress for the program’s long-term renewal. “It was my honor to receive his badge,” he said.
He told fellow Senators it was time to keep the nation’s “solemn commitment to first-responders and their families …and to make our heroes whole.”
New York Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, the bill’s prime movers in the Senate, had managed to get 71 others to sign on as co-sponsors going into the vote. In remarks after the bill’s passage, both lamented that the battle over permanently funding the program had gone on for so long.
An Eerie Coincidence
Mr. Lemonda noted that when C-Span’s live broadcast flashed the final Senate tally, the time on the screen was 3:43 p.m. “I got chills,” he said.
The two no votes were cast by Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Utah’s Mike Lee, Republicans who said they were concerned about the open-ended nature of the commitment in light of the mounting Federal deficit.
Mr. Lee wanted to fund the measure for only 10 years at a projected cost of $10.2 billion. Mr. Paul wanted to require spending cuts in other programs as an offset for the VCF renewal.
Their amendments were defeated.
Late last year, VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that a surge in deaths, cancer and disability claims attributed to toxic World Trade Center exposures would force the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund to slash its compensation awards for all pending and future claims by 50-to-70 percent.
So far, the VCF has expended just over $5 billion of the $7.3-billion fund to satisfy 21,000 claims. From 2011 through 2016, the agency had more than 19,000 claims submitted, while in the time since it has gotten 28,000 more, a number that continues to grow.
Make-Up on Way
As a consequence of the shortfall, lawyers representing 9/11 first-responders confirmed that some of their clients got no money in the last few months. Under the bill that Congress just passed, those claimants will eventually get their full awards.
Michael Barasch, a leading WTC attorney, said claimants might still get notices in the mail of significantly reduced awards. “I have been assured by the Special Master that these people will be made whole as soon as the Department of the Treasury funds the VCF account, and that likely won’t happen until the end of this year at the earliest,” he said in a phone interview.
He said that the fund could expedite claims in the event an applicant was terminally ill or in imminent danger of losing a home to foreclosure.
“There are some very reputable lending firms that will lend a claimant money on the basis of an award letter, or if they were in that group that were cut in this interim period, at a 9-percent interest rate,” he said.