The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund is running dangerously low on cash and will be forced to dramatically reduce payments, some by as much as 70 percent, for an estimated 19,000 Americans who suffered serious illnesses or death from the 2001 terror attack, officials said Friday.
Special master Rupa Bhattacharyya said that an overwhelming number of claims from people who got sick from toxins at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, has drained the $7.375 billion fund, leaving little available for those claims still being processed.
"I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation," Bhattacharyya said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "But this is what the law requires."
Since the fund's reauthorization in 2015, nearly $5 billion has been given to more than 21,000 individuals, many of whom are suffering from a variety of cancers and respiratory problems after working on the pile at the still smoldering World Trade Center after the collapse of the Twin Towers, Bhattacharyya said.
In addition, Bhattacharyya said the fund has seen a 235 percent spike in death claims compared to 2015 — with more claims filed in January than in all of 2018.
With just $2.3 billion left in the fund, and nearly 20,000 claims and amendments currently in the pipeline awaiting an award determination, Bhattacharyya said serious adjustments are necessary.
All claims submitted for review before Feb. 1 will be reduced by 50 percent, Bhattacharyya said, while those submitted after that date will be reduced by 70 percent.
"I sincerely regret that I made a promise that I could not keep," she said. "But the data does not allow me to do that."
Congressional lawmakers, led by the New York delegation, spearheaded legislation in December 2015 to renew the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to cover claims through December 2020. The fund had been set to expire in 2016.
At the time, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that funding would be sufficient to last through 2025.
But those estimates, Bhattacharyya said, did not anticipate a surge in applications in recent months. They include a growing number of cancer claims, an increase in applicants who say they can no longer work because of 9/11-related illnesses and a deluge of claims from the survivors of those who have died from their injuries.
John Feal, founder of the 9/11 advocacy group FealGood Foundation in Nesconset, said he predicted three years ago that the fund would run out of money but Friday's announcement was still devastating.
"I don’t blame the special master, I have a good working relationship with her and she’s doing a great job in getting the awards out. I blame Congress," he said. "They keep putting deadlines on legislation and these arbitrary dates and deadlines for legislation is insulting because these cancers and respiratory illnesses have no deadlines and they have no arbitrary dates.”
New York lawmakers pledged to introduce legislation next week that will fully fund the program, providing as much money as is needed to keep it operational indefinitely.
"Whenever one of our 9/11 heroes is diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness, we should be there for them," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said she will introduce a bill with Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. "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."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also said he supported making the fund permanent, and New York Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler said they planned to introduce legislation to address the issue.
"Our bill would restore any cuts to awards, ensure that future eligible recipients are fully compensated and make the VCF program permanent," the three said in a joint statement.
With Deborah S. Morris