First came the chronic cough. Then the wheezing and the difficulty breathing.
For retired NYPD officer Chris Dyckman of Seaford, the diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD, was a difficult blow to his active lifestyle. But even after his 2011 diagnosis, Dyckman failed to immediately connect the long-term lung condition to his time at Ground Zero in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
By the time Dyckman, 50, realized that many other first responders and rescue workers were also getting seriously ill — or worse — and that there was a fund to help compensate the victims it was too late. The deadline for Dyckman to register with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund had passed, making him ineligible for benefits.
But a new rule change will allow Dyckman, and thousands more like him suffering serious medical issues from breathing the toxic air around lower Manhattan more than 18 years ago, to finally receive desperately needed compensation.
Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, recently announced that the look-back period for potential claimants to register with the fund had been extended. The change allows individuals to register with the fund through July 29, 2021 — exactly two years after the enactment of legislation ensuring essentially permanent financial support for the fund.
"The COPD will become debilitating in the future so it's good to know that there is a fund to help take care of my family," said Dyckman, a married father of four.
The policy change comes after Congress last July renewed the fund, providing funding to keep it operational through 2092. Bhattacharyya had warned lawmakers last year that the fund was running out of money, and those enrolled in the program would face up to 70 percent cuts in their payments.
All claims currently on file with the fund will be considered timely and individuals who had their applications rejected because they missed the previous deadline will be allowed to refile, officials said. Claims that are currently going through the appeals process will be automatically reconsidered, officials said.
Previously, a potential claimant had to register with the fund within two years of being diagnosed. Families similarly had two years to file a claim after their loved one died from a World Trade Center-related physical health condition.
"This policy change presents a tremendous opportunity to take steps over the next year or two to find every potentially eligible claimant and ensure they register before July 29, 2021," Bhattacharyya wrote in a December report.
Michael Barasch, an attorney who represents 18,000 clients with 9/11-related illnesses, including more than 2,500 from Long Island, said thousands of individuals living or working in lower Manhattan at the time of the terror attack became seriously ill from breathing the toxic air.
But many individuals, including office workers, students and residents, failed to immediately "connect the dots" between their physical ailments, such as lung cancer, and their exposure to 9/11-related toxins until well after the deadline, Barasch said. Others, he said, were unaware of the existence of the fund or thought it applied only to first responders.
"This is a game changer for the entire 9/11 community," said Barasch, who represents the families of about 1,000 individuals who have died from 9/11-related illnesses. "This can financially be a life-changer for so many widows and families."
Roughly 300,000 office workers, 25,000 residents and about 50,000 teachers and students were below Canal Street at the time of the attack and could have been exposed to the toxins, Barasch said.
Daniel Hansen, another attorney representing 9/11 victims, said the two-year rule caused the unfair denial of many wrongful death claims
New York City’s World Trade Center Health Registry has said that more than 410,000 people, including 90,000 first responders, were directly exposed to environmental contaminants in the aftermath of the attacks. An estimated 67,000 of those individuals have died since 2001, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.
But only a fraction of those who have gotten ill or have lost loved ones have filed claims, statistics show.
A total of 54,381 VCF claims, including nearly 1,300 deaths, were filed by the end of 2019, with 33,591 awards approved by the special master, records show.
As of the end of 2019, the fund had paid out $6.18 billion, according to federal statistics.
"It's amazing that after so many years and so much news coverage that these families, many who struggle due to the loss, still don't know their absolute right to receive financial support from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund,” Hansen said.