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9/11 victim fund will cut payouts by up to 70 percent as claims surge

The facade of one of the towers of the World Trade Center lies in ruins as workmen work in the early morning hours on Sept. 14, 2001.

GARY FRIEDMAN/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By DEVLIN BARRETT | The Washington Post | Published: February 15, 2019

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund plans to cut future payouts in half — and in some cases by as much as 70 percent — as it struggles with a surge of new claims from those who have gotten sick and the families of those who have died, officials announced Friday.

The fund was opened by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for deaths and illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after terrorists crashed four hijacked airliners in 2001. To date, the $7.3 billion fund has paid about $5 billion to roughly 21,000 claimants. About 700 were for deaths that occurred long after the attacks.

Now, faced with more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims, the math has become painful.

"We recognize that this is horribly unfair, particularly because we have spent the balance of this program paying claims at full value, and claimants who are coming in now are going to receive less," said Rupa Bhattacharyya, who administers the fund. "Unfortunately, the law really leaves us no choice. This is the fairest way we could come up with to do it."

Bhattacharyya warned in October that the fund's balance was falling while claims were skyrocketing, and that claims received after Feb. 1 may not receive the full amounts given to earlier claimants. That prompted another rush of thousands of claims, yet even that approach was overly optimistic.

Officials announced Friday that any pending claims, including those received before Feb. 1, will be paid at 50 percent of their prior value. Valid claims received after that date will be paid at just 30 percent. The fund is scheduled to stop taking claims in December 2020.

"I'm devastated, and the 9/11 community is devastated," said John Feal, a construction worker who was injured at Ground Zero and has become an activist. Congress, he argued, "put an arbitrary deadline on illnesses that don't have deadlines. . . . This is un-American, unpatriotic and inhumane."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who played a key role in getting Congress to pass legislation re-creating the fund, said she would push for passage of a new law to add more money and make the fund permanent.

The budget crunch has been exacerbated by increases in the types of claims being filed, Bhattacharyya said.

"We've seen an extremely large increase in the number of deceased claims," she said, noting the number has tripled since 2015. "And we are also seeing an increase in the number of serious conditions."

Recent claims include FBI agents who were exposed to toxins as part of their investigative work and later became ill. Last June, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brian Crews died of cancer, nearly 17 years after he worked at a landfill where investigators sifted toxic World Trade Center debris looking for human remains and evidence.

In total, 15 FBI special agents have died of illnesses attributed to their post-9/11 service. Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said the fund "needs to be extended so the people going through these work-related injuries and deaths can and should be taken care of." He also urged people who were at those sites to sign up for the 9/11 programs.

To date, the average payout has been about $240,000, while the largest was $4.1 million and the smallest was $458. The busiest year for the fund was 2018, when it made a total of $1.5 billion in payments.

Facing more numerous and more expensive claims, Bhattacharyya said there is only one fair way to adjust the figures.

"I thought it was very important to try to pay everyone something," she said. "I did not want to be in a position . . . of paying some people something and some people nothing."

The first 9/11 fund was created in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks to compensate the families of those killed and injured - and to protect the airlines from what lawmakers feared would be crippling lawsuits. The original fund distributed over $7 billion, ending in 2004.

Subsequently, New York politicians and activists pressed for a new version of the fund to compensate those suffering from debilitating illnesses, particularly rescue workers who worked on "The Pile" - the enormous debris field that burned for months in the ruins of the collapsed World Trade Center towers. In particular, doctors treating former recovery workers noted high instances of respiratory problems, often dubbed "World Trade Center cough," and gastrointestinal problems.

A second iteration of the fund was launched in 2011 and extended by Congress in 2015. Those eligible include recovery workers and those who lived and worked near the attack sites who may have been harmed by the toxic dust and debris.

Applicants don't have to prove that their illnesses were directly caused by exposure, but they have to show they were at the area where exposure occurred, and that they have contracted one of the diseases or conditions covered by the fund.

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