Even as the nation’s capital was caught up in the frenzy over the Mueller Report, advocates for the reauthorization of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund were working the corridors of Congress to advance their cause.
“In a way, the distraction of the Mueller Report was a welcomed opportunity for us because we had the full attention of the administrative assistants who we met with,” said Michael Barasch, the attorney for the late NYPD Detective James Zadroga, for whom the original World Trade Center health-and-compensation bill was named.
Already Reduced Payouts
Last year, Rupa Bhattacharyya, the Special Master for the 9/11 VCF, announced that as a consequence of a dramatic spike in the number of 9/11 wrongful-death and WTC-related cancer claims, the $7.3-billion fund would have to greatly reduce the size of its payouts. Without reauthorization, the program is slated to close late next year.
“We are getting 50 percent of what everybody else was getting with exactly the same cancer before Feb. 1,” Mr. Barasch said in a phone interview. “Colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, that were all getting $250,000 before Feb. 1, are now getting $125,000—even if their case had been pending for well over a year. This is hitting our police and fire widows as well.”
Under the pending 9/11 VCF reauthorization bill, claimants who received the reduced payments would ultimately be made whole, Mr. Barasch said.
Ben Chevat, the executive director of Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act, said the bill’s boosters were making progress. As a former Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, he’s had ample experience counting votes.
'A Good Cross-Section’
“We are at 194 sponsors in the House and 32 sponsors in the Senate,” he said, “So that’s only having the bill introduced just a month ago. That’s pretty good, and we have a good cross-section, with 38 of the sponsors in the House being Republicans, along with five Senate Republicans.”
For 9/11 WTC advocates, the challenge remains educating members of Congress and their staff members, many of whom were children when the towers collapsed, that reauthorizing the VCF is not just a northeast regional issue. Responders came from all 50 states, and all but one of the 435 Congressional Districts.
“I am very familiar with the Federal Emergency Management Administration unit that responded [to the WTC] from Sacramento, California,” said Mr. Chevat. “They were on the ground 14 hours after the building collapsed. It is a team of a hundred-plus, mostly firefighters.”
He continued, “When they returned home, many of them were sick and they had a lot of struggles with California Fire Compensation and with the disability [officials]. There was a lot of finger-pointing as to whose responsibility it was. That’s why the VCF is so important: because there are many different fact patterns.”
‘Take Care of Injured’
In an interview at the March 25 commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in lower Manhattan, Vincent Alvarez, executive director of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, said he saw a connection between that 108-year-old catastrophe and the ongoing campaign to fully fund the VCF. “There’s the advocacy component—helping to create policies and fund laws that will protect workers in the workplace,” he said. “But when a tragic event takes place like what happened on 9/11, we have to make sure that those workers and responders who were injured are taken care of.”
And, while the 9/11 advocacy work has focused on the first-responders who worked on the emergency response and recovery at the WTC site itself, Mr. Alvarez believes passage of the VCF extension is important for the tens of thousands of private- and public-sector workers who continued to report to their jobs south of Canal Street, but outside the WTC’s actual perimeter.
“If you went to work in that area, you are a patriot, because at that time our city was on its heels and its knees, and every worker deserves to have some sort of protection for going down there for doing their duty for city and country,” he said.
Backers of the measure hope to have a House vote in May or June, after which it would go to the Senate for a vote by July, before the summer recess, with final passage in the fall.
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