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On 14th anniversary of 9/11, worries that victim compensation fund will run out

An activist holds a sign in support of

An activist holds a sign in support of 9/11 responders during a news conference Sept. 3, 2015, in New York. Credit: AP

Advocates praised the pace of awards from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund 14 years after the attacks, but they said their chief concern now is to ensure that Congress reauthorizes more money to pay for claims and continued health care.

The latest statistics released Wednesday by the fund's special master, Sheila Birnbaum, show that more than $1.44 billion -- more than half of the $2.775 billion fund -- has been allocated for awards.

The VCF said that of the 14,618 eligibility claims that could be decided, 12,150 have been approved. So far, compensation -- a second part of the process -- has been decided for 6,285 victims, the vast majority of which were responders.

The highest award has been $4,133,466, the lowest $10,000.

The fund, created under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, is set to expire in October 2016. Without the reauthorization, advocates said, there won't be enough money to compensate the remaining claimants.

"I believe the VCF is working diligently to improve the statistics," said John Feal, founder of the 9/11 advocacy group FealGood Foundation. "But it's hard to sell to a fragile community desperately in need of compensation with the cloud of not enough money hanging over them."

Ben Chevat, executive director of 9/11 Health Watch and Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act Inc., both nonprofits formed by unions, agreed.

"Clearly the special master is moving ahead and processing claims at an increasing rate and we are very thankful to her and her team," he said. "But what is increasingly clear is that Congress needs to act to make sure that all of these responders receive their full compensation."

Noah Kushlefsky, an attorney with Kreindler & Kreindler in Manhattan, which represents about 7,000 responders, said the process "is way better every day" and the turnaround time quicker, which is especially important with next year's expiration looming.

The reauthorization bill -- which calls for renewing and making permanent the VCF as well as the medical program that monitors and treats more than 72,000 responders and other victims -- already has 125 co-sponsors in the House and 29 in the Senate.

Feal said he was confident that the 9/11 anniversary and lobbying efforts planned for next Wednesday with hundreds of responders joined by former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart -- a staunch supporter of the original Zadroga bill -- walking the halls of Congress should persuade more to support the bill.

"That should spring us forward," Feal said. "I'm not worried about getting the bill extended. The big question is for how long? That's the issue."

Richard Alles of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, a board member for the Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act Inc., has also been asking presidential candidates about their support of the bill.

So far, he said, of the five Democrats running, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland have said they would back the bill. Among the 17 Republican contenders, former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and George Pataki of New York have said they would support it, he said.

Alles said he was frustrated by the lack of support and he especially called on the four Republican senators running for president -- Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- to respond.

"I hold them to a higher standard," he said.

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