With fewer than 100 days to apply, officials and advocates are worried that ailing 9/11 responders and survivors don't know they may be eligible for the Victim Compensation Fund -- monies that could potentially affect their lifelong health care.
"It's amazing how many out there don't even know this program exists," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the World Trade Center Health Program in Suffolk, Nassau and Brooklyn.
But the fund's special master, Sheila Birnbaum, who is coming to Commack on Thursday night to answer questions as part of an outreach program, said she was expecting "a lot more filings" as the deadline approached.
Responders and survivors have until Oct. 3 to register with the $2.8-billion fund, established under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010.
The fund is open to responders and survivors who suffer a range of illnesses -- from respiratory problems such as asthma to about 60 cancers -- as a result of exposure to the World Trade Center attacks or the cleanup.
So far, 17,453 have registered for the fund and decisions have been rendered on 53 claims worth $6 million in compensation, according to the Department of Justice, which administers the fund. Those offered payouts are getting a portion upfront; the rest will be paid in 2016-17.
No one has a good estimate of how many people may be eligible. More than 64,000 are enrolled in the Zadroga Act's health care program, although many of these are healthy and just come once a year for a checkup.
"To this day we really don't know the universe of people who could be covered," said Benjamin Chevat, executive director of 9/11 Health Watch, a nonprofit formed by unions to ensure health coverage and compensation for responders.
John Feal, founder of responders' advocacy group FealGood Foundation, said he estimated that about 19,000 would end up registering for the fund. He appealed to anyone who knows a responder to "let them know about this. It's absolutely vital. It's the rest of their lives."
Lawyers for responders said that initially the claims process had moved glacially but has become more streamlined.
"The bottom line is that nobody -- not the government, Congress, the VCF or the lawyers -- appreciated the complexity of the process," said Noah Kushlevsky of Kreindler & Kreindler in Manhattan, who, along with attorney Michael Barasch, represents about 1,100 responders. He said that they have 15 to 20 employees working two shifts to ensure that applications get in on time.
In the meantime, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a proposed rule on Tuesday to add prostate cancer to the list of cancers covered under the Zadroga Act. A final ruling will be made after Aug. 1.The information session on the victim compensation fund is to take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, July 11, at CSEA Local 1000 Region 1, 3 Garet Place, Commack. To reserve a seat, call Sonia Fore at 631-855-1207. For more information about the fund, go to vcf.gov.