By Devlin Barrett Wall Street Journal
Only 112 Decisions Have Been Made, Despite 55,000 Applications
Two years after the launch of a government-created fund to pay sick Ground Zero workers, it has made 112 payment decisions on the nearly 55,000 applications filed, according to new figures.
The figures, due to be released Friday by the fund, show the difficulty in lining up paperwork to support payouts. To get payment, claimants must demonstrate they were at the toxic site of the World Trade Center or other places where jetliners were downed on September 11, 2001, and they must show evidence they developed one of the diseases covered by the $2.8 billion fund.Sheila Birnbaum, a private attorney appointed special master of the fund, said the fund’s 75 workers have been carefully building a claims system and educating claimants and their lawyers about the necessary paperwork.
“I think the process is working. There will be increasing numbers of people getting through,” Ms. Birnbaum said, though she added, “We have to get much faster.”
The Victim Compensation Fund is designed to provide money to those who be ill after toiling at Ground Zero or the other sites of jetliners downed on 9/11. Those who got sick after living or working near Ground Zero are also eligible. The fund was created by Congress in 2011. Many workers on the debris pile reported hacking coughs, intestinal problems and other ailments. Some have developed cancers, which they blame on their exposure to the smoking rubble.
Many volunteers at Ground Zero have said it is difficult to provide the proof required by the fund because no one was taking attendance in the days and weeks that followed the attacks.
Sept. 11 workers and their advocates have voiced growing concerns that the system is moving too slowly. The situation is not dissimilar to the first incarnation of the fund, which compensated the families of those killed or visibly injured. That fund also began slowly and then accelerated as it neared its deadline.
The current fund began accepting registrations in October 2011. By Oct. 3 of this year, 48,248 registrations had been completed, and another 6,649 people filled out interim registrations to hold a spot in the system. It is possible some people have filled out more than one registration, fund officials said.
A large majority of those registered have yet to produce the necessary documentation to advance their cases. According to newly compiled figures, 11,056 eligibility forms have been submitted, but 2,475 of those have all the necessary documents.
Only 871 people have completed compensation forms, and of those, most are still being reviewed.
“How many compensation forms do we have? It’s still a very small number,” said Ms. Birnbaum.
The compensation decisions so far total more than $27 million, a figure that amounts to less than 1% of the total expected funding for the program.
Ms. Birnbaum said her office has increased its staff to 75 people to handle the workload, though she acknowledged that they are still opening mail from the rush that occurred before an Oct. 3 deadline for applications.
The reviewers can’t work too fast, she said, without increasing the opportunity for dishonest people to try to defraud the program.
“It just a process that takes time. You can’t turn it on and off with a switch,” she said, adding that she expects the numbers to get much better by the third year of the program.