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Nation & World

More bad news for 9/11 victims: Compensation fund will slash payouts

Action due to increase in death and cancer claims

WASHINGTON – The 9/11 fund is running out of money, and will slash payments by at least half for growing numbers of people getting sick or dying from the toxins unleashed in the terror attacks of 2001, officials announced Friday.

People who discovered their illness or got sicker later – applying after Feb. 1 of this year – will see even deeper cuts, of 70 percent.

“If I could find one word, it’s devastating,” said John Feal, who runs the FealGood Foundation, a 9/11 advocate who had been warned the news would be grim. “It’s crushing. A lot of people are going to be hurt by this.”

Congress relaunched the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund in 2015 with $7.375 billion to cover claims through December 2020. But $5 billion of that has already been given to more than 20,000 people suffering and dying from cancer, breathing problems and trauma stemming the grim day 18 years ago when terrorists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

A little more than $2 billion remains for some 20,000 people already enrolled in the fund, with thousands more expected to apply before its 2020 expiration.

“I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation. I also deeply regret that I could not honor my intention to spare any claim submitted prior to this announcement from any reductions made due to a determination of funding insufficiency. But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice. If there had been a different option available to me, I assure you I would have taken it,” said Rupa Bhattacharyya, the fund’s special master.

The shortfall stems from several factors, but most tragically a jump in the number of first responders and victims dying. According to data released by the Fund, January of this year saw a 235 percent surge in death claims, compared to the end of 2015.

Cancer is also mushrooming, with 8,000 cancer claims ruled eligible for compensation by the end of 2018. That accounts for nearly a third of all claims, compared to a little more than a fifth of claims in the previous compensation fund that expired after 2015.

“The number of people coming forward with illnesses and cancers related to their exposure to toxins at ground zero grows every single day,” said Benjamin Chevat, executive director of Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act. “Every other day another 9/11 responder or survivor reportedly dies from a 9/11 related cancer.”

With more people dying, there’s also a surge in survivors applying, according to the data. In the last compensation fund, 14 percent of the claims were from survivors. In this one, they account for 35 percent.

“The magnitude of the 9/11 cancer problem, though obvious today, was not entirely known in 2015 when the VCF reauthorization was funded,” he said.

Advocates like Feal and Chevat generally give high marks to the VCF, which is run by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice.

The growing need comes from the nature of the attacks, and the past unwillingness of many members of Congress to back a permanent compensation fund.

“The only thing to blame is 9/11 itself,” Feal said. “It’s a harsh realty of a day that has not ended because 9/11 keeps releasing toxic poisons that are still killing people.”

Advocates and lawmakers are expected to roll out new legislation soon in hopes of providing a more enduring solution, one that does not need to be reauthorized every 5 years.

“What disturbs me is that we continue to put deadlines on illnesses that have no deadlines,” Feal said.

Congress had to be repeatedly shamed into passing the last two versions of the compensation fund, with cops, firefighters and other responders repeatedly trekking to Washington with their wheelchairs, crutches and oxygen tanks to plead their case. Their efforts won a permanent treatment program, but only the temporary compensation fund.

Feal, who has been pushing Congress for well over a decade, hopes this go-round will go more smoothly than the previous efforts. But he’s prepared for more shaming.

“If any member of Congress is morally bankrupt, shows political malpractice, if their human moral compass is posted in the wrong direction, if you are not with us, then you are against us,” Feal said. “And we will make your life miserable.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., vowed to introduce legislation with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., that would re-up the fund so that there would never be another shortfall.

“When we needed them, they were there for us,” the junior New York senator said. “So whenever one of our 9/11 heroes is diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness, we should be there for them. They should have the peace of mind of knowing they will have financial support from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to help them and their families. Cancer rates in the 9/11 first responder community are rising higher than ever, which means the VCF is more important than ever. We cannot tell them, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the funds for you.’ We cannot turn our backs on these heroes – not now, not ever.”

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