9/11 Health Fund Pays out Its First 15 Awards

By Anemona Hartocollis New York Times

A federal fund set up to compensate people sickened by the September 11 terrorist attack made its first awards on Tuesday, to 15 first responders.

The recipients’ names were not released, but 14 are firefighters and one is a correction officer who responded to the disaster early on, mainly on the first day, said Sheila Birnbaum, the special master of the $2.8 billion victim compensation fund.

Most of them had respiratory illnesses and none of them had cancer, she said. Their awards, which are tax-free, ranged from $10,000 to $1.5 million. But they are receiving only 10 percent at first because of uncertainty about how many people will ultimately apply for the benefits, which are available to first responders, volunteers, workers and residents who were in Lower Manhattan in the months after the attack. Ms. Birnbaum could not provide the total dollar amount awarded in this round.

The fund expires in October 2016. With thousands of people potentially eligible, it could in theory, according to an actuarial calculation, have to pay $8.5 billion, far more than it can afford.

“If our estimates have been too conservative and there’s money we can afford, we’ll give you another check,” Ms. Birnbaum said.

Richard Alles, a deputy fire chief and legislative chairman of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said his members were pleased to see the money finally being disbursed. “It’s a tremendous relief for many people who are sick and dying from 9/11-related illnesses,” he said.

In late 2010, Congress approved the $2.8 billion compensation fund, along with a $1.5 billion fund for health monitoring and treatment. Dr. James Melius, chairman of the steering committee for the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, said he hoped the reality of the awards would encourage others to fill out their paperwork.

Ms. Birnbaum said $10,000 would be the lowest amount awarded. The highest awards, she said, represented lost income for firefighters who were relatively young and mostly or completely disabled. The awards are compensation for lost wages, out-of-pocket expenses for doctors, medications and other health costs, and pain and suffering, which is based on the extent of someone’s disability. Other sources of compensation, like pensions, disability money and court settlements, are deducted from the amount before it is paid.

Ms. Birnbaum said she had not awarded money for cancer yet because she had not received any completed applications from people with cancer, and not because of any medical judgment. Fifty kinds of cancer were added to the list of eligible sicknesses last year despite a lack of evidence tying September 11 to cancer.

“Each claim is looked at individually,” Ms. Birnbaum said. “The type of illness is not important. What is important is your economic loss.”

Ms. Birnbaum said one reason for the small number of payments was the glacial pace at which the paperwork was being filled out. More than 16,000 people have registered for the victim compensation fund, but only 2,500 have gone the next step and submitted eligibility forms, showing that they were present at the disaster sites: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pa., or the landfill and routes where debris was taken. Of those, only 190 have submitted compensation forms, and many lack documentation, Ms. Birnbaum said.

She said her staff had been meeting with lawyers to advise them on how to get better affidavits from witnesses for people who did not have other ways to document that they had been at the disaster sites. “These affidavits are so bare,” she said, “that nobody could say that these showed anything.”

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