Daily News - Frustration over 9/11 victims fund grows as ailing responders grapple with slow payouts

News Article

By:  Jerry Nadler Carolyn Maloney Pete King Kirsten Gillibrand
Date: Nov. 25, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Thousands of sick 9/11 responders learned Friday that the $2.8 billion fund established to compensate them has made final rulings on 112 claims after two years of work.

"I'm disappointed," said John Feal, a construction supervisor severely injured on "The Pile," who lobbied Congress for the 2011 law setting up the Victims Compensation Fund.

"It's moving at a snail's pace, and we're talking about human life."

Nearly 55,000 people registered for the compensation fund by Oct. 3, 2013's deadline for noncancer illnesses, according to the fund's annual report issued Friday.

Advocates project that only about half have covered ailments and will qualify.

More than 11,000 registrants have submitted eligibility forms, and the fund has made decisions on about 2,500 of them, deeming 871 claimants eligible.

Awards totalling $27.2 million have been pledged to the 112 claimants who got final decisions.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens), Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn) and Peter King (R-L.I.) issued statements that they were deeply disappointed by the program's pace.

"Many of these claimants literally do not have time to waste," the House members said in a joint statement.

Manhattan lawyer and fund administrator Sheila Birnbaum more than doubled program staff this year to 75, the report said. Insiders said she didn't add more staff because she was reluctant to cut further into funding intended for responders.

Like others frustrated by the pace, Feal said that fault extends from the administrators to the claimants' sluggish lawyers -- and even to responders themselves.

"Responders need to know that they had to get their records in," Feal said. "Some of them think this is going to be handed to them."

Birnbaum said the fund could make decisions "tomorrow" on the 871 eligible cases if claimants and lawyers completed their paperwork.

"We have continued to add personnel, but at this point we're not overwhelmed with the number of eligibility forms," said Birnbaum, acknowledging that she may add staff in the coming year.

Feal takes heart in the deadlines imposed by the law. Its first chunk of more than $800 million in funding must be paid out by 2016.

The deadline for claims related to 9/11 cancers, added late to the program, is next October.