RUPA BHATTACHARYYA: Overwhelmed by volume of claims.

A surge in deaths, cancers, and disability claims attributed to toxic World Trade Center exposures has forced the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund to slash its compensation awards  for all pending and future claims, according to VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya.

Potential payouts for claims that have been already filed will be cut by 50 percent, and awards for claims not yet filed will be slashed by 70 percent. 

Who's Eligible

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 lived, worked or went to school below Canal St. at the time of the attack or in the several months that followed. 

As required by the Zadroga Act, which set up the fund, Ms. Bhattacharyya put the public on notice in a posting in the Federal Register last year that the $7.3-billion fund “may be insufficient to compensate all claims.” As part of that disclosure, she solicited suggestions on how the fund could most equitably deal with the projected shortfall.

To date, the U.S. Department of Justice-administered fund has allocated almost $5 billion of its $7.3 billion congressionally-authorized appropriation to cover 21,000 claims. The VCF is slated to close its doors by Dec. 18, 2020.

In a Feb.15 conference call with reporters, Ms. Bhattacharyya confirmed that based on current trends, the VCF estimated it would need an additional $5 billion from Congress to settle claims at the previous level of compensation. 

'Inequitable, But...'

There is bipartisan legislation pending in Congress to fully fund the VCF on a permanent basis, but unless that measure is signed into law, Ms. Bhattacharyya said it would be necessary for the fund to ration payouts based on what's now available.

“We are painfully aware this is inequitable, but this is what the law requires,” she said, “We at the VCF remain strongly committed to meeting the needs of the 9/11 community.”

The “Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act” would cover potential shortfalls in funding for the VCF and permanently authorize it.

Last October Ms. Bhattacharyya held out the possibility that despite the projected shortfall, the fund could continue to honor claims at the full rate of compensation until Feb. 1, but once word spread of the shortfall, claim volume spiked dramatically.

“We had fully expected at the time that would be something we could do,” she told reporters. “Unfortunately, the extremely increased volume of claim filings we saw in the last four months…made that impossible.”

Dramatic Rise in Claims

In the four months after the publication of the Federal notice in October, the VCF received a full year’s volume of claims. In January alone, the fund posted 4,000 new claims, six times the normal monthly volume. 

Ms. Bhattacharyya said that initially there was a  significant underestimation of the casualties of WTC toxic exposures. “We have seen as many 'deceased' filings in January as we got in all of January 2018,” she said. From Dec. 2015 up until now, the fund saw a 235-percent increase in survivors filing on behalf of deceased family members who died from their WTC-related diseases.

In addition, the Special Master reported the fund was seeing a spike in claimants who re-filed for an additional award because their health continued to deteriorate and “more and more people are finding they cannot continue to work.”

Ms. Bhattacharyya said there had also been a shift in the make-up  of the claimant population as well. “In December 2015, not quite 14 percent of our claimants were survivors” who lived, worked and went to school in lower Manhattan. “Now it is 35 percent,” she said.

'A Devastating Impact'

Word of the draconian cuts to the VCF payouts brought renewed calls for congressional action.

"This dramatic reduction in awards for 9/11 first-responders, survivors, and families of those who have lost their battles with these horrific illnesses will have a devastating impact on countless families and requires immediate action by the Federal Government,” Michael Barasch, an attorney specializing in 9/11-related cases, said in a statement. “I want to be clear: the shortfall is not the fault of Congress, the President, or the VCF’s Special Master. Instead, it was necessary because of an unanticipated explosion of cancers and deaths in the 9/11 community.”

He continued, “Many more are expected to get sick as a result of their exposure to Ground Zero toxins in the 8 months after 9/11. People were told by the Federal Government that the air was safe to breathe -- but the air was highly carcinogenic, with a chemical composition similar to Drano, and mixed with pulverized glass and concrete. Members of the 9/11 community and their families continue to suffer."

'A Punch in the Gut'

“Today's announcement by the Special Master that the Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) will be forced to cut awards due to insufficient funding is a punch in the gut to 9/11 responders and survivors, and it’s Congress's job to fix this tragic and unacceptable crisis,” State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement. “Today's announced cuts only intensify our call on our government to never forget the 9/11 heroes and their families by fully funding and making permanent the Victim Compensation Fund.”

He continued, “We stood together as a nation on that horrific day, and shortly after we declared as a country that we would never forget. This critically important program was promised to these brave men and women fighting 9/11-related cancers and other life-threatening illnesses. It’s time for Congress to pass this bipartisan bill to ensure responders, survivors and their families get the support they so rightly deserve.”

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