Running dry: Fund for 9/11 victims may not even last until 2020 deadline

Photo by Associated Press / Stan Honda Even a month after the 9/11 attacks, the still-smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero spewed noxious smoke and toxins into the air.

The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund has had surging registrations in the past two, but has only about $3 billion — less than half of its original funding — left in its coffers.
Photo by Associated Press / Stan Honda

BY COLIN MIXSON

A bipartisan group of New York members of Congress is demanding that their colleagues permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, releasing a joint statement on Oct. 2 mere hours after the program’s lead administrator stated that the $7.375 billion that lawmakers allocated to support survivors of the terror attacks may run out before the fund’s 2020 deadline.

“As we near the expiration of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund in 2020, our job is not done,” read the statement signed by Democratic Congress members Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, Republican Congressman Peter King, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “As today’s notice shows, allowing this program to expire, or 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 VCF, like the World Trade Center Health Program, was included as part of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which Congress approved following revelations that not only first responders, but Lower Manhattan residents, workers, and students were falling ill with a laundry list of cancers and other debilitating respiratory and digestive diseases as a result of the vaporized glass, asbestos, and other carcinogens that haunted the Downtown area for months after the Twin Towers’ collapse, even as the federal government falsely assured the public that the air was safe.

The VCF was originally set to expire in 2015, but Congress reauthorized the fund for another five years following a nation-wide campaign led in part by comedian Jon Stewart, so victims now have until Dec. 12, 2020 to file claims through the program.

Survivors and their advocates have already raised the alarm about that arbitrary deadline, pointing out that many cases of 9/11-related cancers will continue to be diagnosed long after the end of 2020.

But an Oct. 2 report by the VCF’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, raised the new spectre that even victims who are diagnosed and enrolled before the deadline may not receive proper compensation, given the rising number of diagnoses of 9/11-related cancers and other illnesses, and the fact that the fund has only about $3 billion left in its coffers.

Bhattacharyya cited data from the WTC Health Program, and the VCF’s own records as of Aug. 31, which suggested that, baring any changes to current policies, the VCF may exceed its funding limits well before the 2020 deadline, although the special master declined to make what she described as a “formal determination” that funding was insufficient.

Public records released by the WTC Health Program show a steady increase in enrollment, rising from 56,204 victims in July 2011 to 88,484 in June, 2018. Enrollment rates have increased by more than 74 percent year-on-year between July 2016 and June of last year.

Moreover, civilian enrollment now routinely outpaces the number of first responders signing up for the program — out of the 14 months between May 2017 and June 2018, only four months saw more first responders sign up than civilian survivors.

Bhattacharyya noted in her report that she’s been charged by Congress to prioritize claims of victims suffering the most debilitating conditions, but said she would be begin planning contingencies in case funds reach a critical level, and will begin seeking public input on any changes to how the VCF should be administered for those who have not yet filed claims.

In a letter sent to their colleagues in Washington, however, Schumer, Maloney, Nadler, King, and Gillibrand demanded the VCF be both permanently funded and extended indefinitely, citing data showing that the number of people dying from 9/11 illnesses will soon exceed the number of direct victims of the attack killed that day, and also noting the anguish and uncertainty caused by the rapidly approaching deadline.

“Congress needs to fix this now before waiting until the last minute and putting our heroes through more suffering and anxiety over whether their federal government will stand with them in their time of need,” the pols wrote. “Brave men and women across our country answered the call to assist our country in a time of vulnerability, and we need to ensure that they receive not only the medical care that they desperately need and deserve, but the financial help they and their families need.”

Anyone who lived, worked, studied, or was a first responder south of Canal Street at any point from Sept. 12, 2001 to May 30, 2002 is urged to register with the Victim’s Compensation Fund — regardless of whether or not you have yet been diagnosed with a 9/11 related condition — at www.vcf.gov/register.html.

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