By Sarah Dorsey The Chief
Their complaints reflected the gamut of September 11-related illnesses and the frustrations of trying to obtain government benefits to cover them.
A man stepped up to the microphone and said he’d been hospitalized 29 times in the last 10 years for severe cluster headaches. Could he apply for benefits?
Where’s My Response? Another one had lost his home in Hurricane Sandy. He hadn’t gotten a response about his claim in months. How could he be sure he hadn’t missed something?
September 11 Victims’ Compensation Fund Special Master Sheila Birnbaum listened patiently to each speaker, clearing up misconceptions about the application process, directing some to the fund’s website and at least one to leave his contact information so she could investigate his case personally.
The information session, held at Baruch College Jan. 30 and attended by a few hundred recovery workers, was organized by U.S. Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler.
The previous day, 15 first responders, including 14 firefighters and a correction officer, learned they would receive the first VCF payments granted under the Zadroga Law. Each will get between $10,000 and $1.5 million for economic losses, such as lost wages for those too sick to work, and less-tangible losses like pain and suffering. Claimants will receive only 10 percent of the money now, because officials are unsure how many others will ultimately apply. Congress has allocated $2.8 billion for the fund, but only $875 million is available during its first five years, and administrators want to make sure there’s enough to go around.
But while officials believe about 34,000 first-responders and Lower Manhattan residents are eligible for awards, only about 16,000 have registered with the fund, and fewer than 100 have submitted complete applications.
Among those gathered in the upstairs conference room that night, only about one in four raised their hands to show they’d registered with the fund. Many fewer said they’d applied—maybe one in 10.
Nine Dead in January
Ms. Birnbaum said those proportions were roughly what she expected given the relatively few applications submitted. Even city employees like firefighters and police officers, who can easily certify they were on site after the attacks, can find it difficult to complete all the necessary steps.
Ms. Birnbaum tried to clear up the process. If you’re sick now but fear you may grow sicker in the future, apply now, she said; you can always amend your application later. If the forms are too complex, hire a lawyer; she can only take 10 percent in compensation. If you’re denied funds or don’t feel you received enough, you can appeal the decision.
The VCF was reopened in 2011 when President Obama signed the Zadroga Act; $7 billion was distributed from 2002 to 2003. While first-responder advocate John Feal, who lost part of a foot to a falling steel beam while on the Pile, praised Ms. Birnbaum for skillfully shepherding the process pro bono, he lamented that the payments came too late for many, including nine responders and volunteers who died from cancer or respiratory ailments in January.
Richard Alles, legislative director of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, noted that one of the deceased had fought hard for years to reopen the fund—retired FDNY Lieut. Martin Fullam, who died two days earlier of a rare respiratory disease. But he was thankful that his work had borne fruit.
“It was a long, long battle, but today’s a good day,” he said. “[Ms. Birnbaum] has streamlined and navigated the difficult political waters and the red tape that’s involved.”
All Get at Least $10G
The first 15 fund recipients all suffer from respiratory ailments. In September, more than 50 cancers were added to the list of covered illnesses, but no cancer patient has submitted a complete application.
Depending on how many of them apply, advocates say Congress may have to allocate more funds to cover them all. Payments are awarded based on age and severity of disability; the person getting $1.5 million was disabled at age 43. Ailments must be physical—Congress did not provide funding for those suffering only from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Ms. Birnbaum said each recipient would get at least $10,000, which Mr. Feal in an interview called a generous use of her discretion as Special Master.
But a few retired fire officers, while praising Ms. Birnbaum’s administration of the fund, expressed frustration with the statutory delays that have dogged it.
“She’s doing a fine job,” said retired Fire Captain Tommy Thompson, a 37-year FDNY veteran. “Sheila I’m really impressed with. [But] it’s really a shame that people with cancer, they’re gonna be dead before they get any [money].”
Concern about Fraud
Retired Fire Chief Michael Telesca said he came to the event, in part, to see if he’d be eligible for an award in addition to his FDNY disability pension. The Zadroga Law requires any payments to be offset by other compensation. The paperwork is extensive enough—applicants must get evidence from each of their doctors—that he didn’t want to waste his time.
Mr. Telesca was also concerned about fraud. He said he’d been asked to vouch for people who weren’t there on 9/11, and worried that such illegitimate claims would eat up the fund’s limited dollars. Ms. Birnbaum told him to report such incidents.
Ms. Maloney said she hoped the information session would encourage more applicants to submit their paperwork by the October deadline. Those who learned of their illness after October 2011 have until two years after their diagnosis to participate.