Long Islanders depending on money from the depleted 9/11 victims fund for medical bills incurred because of the terror attack say they are angry and disappointed payouts will soon drop by as much as 70 percent.
“It is horrible and despicable,” said Gary Klein, 60, of Centereach, a retired NYPD detective who contracted multiple afflictions from his hundreds of hours digging in the rubble of Ground Zero after the 2001 attacks.
Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master overseeing payouts to victims and families for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, said Friday that the fund has been overwhelmed with claims for compensation. The $7.35 billion fund, created in 2011, has already paid out $5 billion to 21,000 claimants and still has about 19,000 unpaid claims to address. Victim advocates and attorneys say they expect as many as 60,000 claims will ultimately be filed.
A bipartisan group of New York congressional leaders has vowed to keep the program fully funded through legislation permanently reauthorizing it while also swaying lawmakers with no connection to New York and weary of the costs. Until then, people receiving compensation will look for ways to make up the difference.
Klein said he has battled a lengthy list of physical and emotional ailments including gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease and post-traumatic stress disorder and used the $15,000 he received in 2018 to take care of related bills that won’t be ending anytime soon.
“Why can’t we find the money to save the lives of those who stepped up from our country?” he asked in an interview Monday.
Bhattacharyya said all claims submitted before Feb. 1 will be reduced by 50 percent while those turned in after that date will be slashed by 70 percent. Bhattacharyya said she was aware of the unfairness of the situation but said there is nothing she can do about it.
“This is what the law requires,” she said.
New York lawmakers said they will roll out plans for permanent reauthorization of the funding program at a Feb. 25 news conference in Washington D.C. Comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for workers sickened at Ground Zero, is expected to attend.
The legislation will call for the government to provide as much money as needed to ensure recipients receive full payouts, said Peter King (R-Seaford).
The fund was created a decade after the attacks to assist those still dealing with consequences from the toxic stew of dust and pulverized rubble unleashed after the attacks. The number of applicants only grew in the ensuing years as the first responders grew sicker or met early deaths. Congress reauthorized the fund in 2015.
“When this was done in 2015, this was the best estimate of all the doctors, the Congressional Budget Office and the advocates,” King said of the current expenditure. “There is no mismanagement of the funds. There is no abuse at all that we know of. Nobody expected that there would be so many illnesses … a lot of these cases are slow-growing cancers. It’s just really terrible.”
The fund has also been hit by a 235-percent spike in death claims compared to 2015, Bhattacharyya said last week, with more claims filed in January than in all of 2018.
John Feal, who has lobbied for assistance for 9/11 first responders and survivors through the Long Island-based organization he founded, FealGood Foundation, said the fund needs an additional $8 billion along with the $2.3 billion remaining.
“Shame on Congress, who keeps putting deadlines on arbitrary dates, because these cancers don’t have arbitrary dates,” said Feal, a demolition supervisor when his foot was crushed by a steel beam while working at Ground Zero.
Manhattan attorney Michael Barasch, who represents 12,000 claimants, said the number of claims filed will eventually hit 60,000.
“You want to talk about a national emergency, I represent people from every state in the union,” Barasch said. “They are coming down with same cancers New Yorkers are coming down with.”
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) have said they will sponsor legislation in the Senate for additional money for the victims fund. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N. Y) will serve as a co-sponsor.
“For too many, ailments and disease from exposure to that toxic airborne brew have taken years to show up and — as the need for the fund grows — the chance it may not have adequate resources to take care of our heroes is just unacceptable,” Schumer said in a statement.
In the House, King and Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) and Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) will introduce companion legislation King said “would restore any cuts to awards, ensure that future eligible recipients are fully compensated, and make the [Victim Compensation Fund] program permanent.”
To further shore up support for the fund in the House, King, Maloney and Nadler recently announced that they tapped Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and newly elected Rep. Max Rose (D-Staten Island) to spearhead a bipartisan outreach effort to educate new members of Congress about the need to permanently fund the Victim Compensation Fund.
“This isn’t just a New York issue and this isn’t a Democratic or Republican Party platform or political football. This is a responsibility we all shoulder as Americans,” Zeldin said in a statement
King said he was confident the measure will pass in the Democratic-controlled House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he pointed out, pushed for the passage of an extension to the Zadroga Act and the compensation fund in 2015.
He also said he plans on discussing the proposed legislation with President Donald Trump. King said he hoped Trump's New York City roots would compel the president to support the measure. Trump came under fire from lawmakers and advocates last year after submitting a 2019 budget proposal that called for reorganizing the World Trade Center Health Program by splitting up key agencies within it. The proposal was eventually shot down by the House Appropriations Committee amid outcry from New York's congressional delegation.
The latest bill could face opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) raised objections about the $7 billion cost of the Zadroga Act in 2010, and refused to schedule an extension vote on the act in 2015 before it was eventually approved under a broader spending bill. McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Sept. 11 survivor Dorothy Curran of Manorville, who was a Barclays bank executive who worked near the World Trade Center when it was attacked, and has battled cancer and other health problems since then, said she is deeply troubled by opposition to the fund.
“I feel terrible for the people who are ill because of 9/11,” said Curran, 68 who has received $20,000 from the fund. “The people in control don’t seem to care.”