A federal program that’s in place to cover the medical bills of first responders and survivors of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks has seen steady claims since 2016. Then, the pandemic happened.
The September 11th Victims Compensation Fund saw claims drop off sharply in 2020, according to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Personal injury claims to cover the cost of 9/11-related diseases were cut by nearly half to 7,000 last year, the lowest year since 2016.
Advocates for 9/11 survivors said they are “almost certain” COVID-19 was the cause.
“COVID had a huge impact,” said attorney Michael Barasch, who represents thousands of 9/11 first responders and survivors. “I used to do a lot of outreach. I used to go and speak at retiree organizations all over the country.”
Congress permanently extended the victims compensation fund in 2019 following a decade-long push by Barasch, the former Daily Show host Jon Stewart and terminally ill first responders from the New York metropolitan area. The deadline to make a claim is in October 2090.
The fund was going to expire in December 2020.
The fund is awarding $250,000 for people with one of 68 cancers linked to 9/11 and $350,000 for the spouses and dependents, if someone died from those diseases.
Barasch’s firm has found that 80% of first responders who rushed to Ground Zero or worked in the pile through the debris in the months after the terror attack have filed a claim. Yet, only 7% of non-responders — more than 300,000 office workers, 50,000 teachers and students, and 25,000 downtown residents — have filed a claim.
“We were breathing the same toxic dust. We're getting the same illnesses. We're dying from the same illnesses,” Barasch said.
“Since last March, people aren't learning about their rights,” he continued. “And they certainly aren't going to know about their deadline until it's too late.”
‘A wrongful death’
Diana Vizcarra died in September 2016 from stomach cancer. She worked data entry for the crude oil industry a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers fell.
Over the last five years, her husband, Rolando Vizcarra, has raised their two teenage daughters — Ashley and Emily — on his own in Florida.
“There hasn’t been a day that has passed by that I don’t think about her. And not a day that goes by that I don't wish I could just hold her again,” Vizcarra said. “But I wasn’t aware of all this [funding] going on. And you know, that was an opportunity for people like me who were indirectly affected by what happened on that day the Twin Towers fell.”
Last August, Vizcarra approached attorney Michael Barasch about making a claim for the death of his wife.
The deadline for this kind of deceased claim – where the person is believed to have died of an eligible 9/11-related condition – must be registered with the World Trade Center Health Program within two years of the data of death. That’s because Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the fund, extended the registration period from two years from the date Congress authorized the permanent fund.
Then, the health program will certify registrants with confirmed 9/11-related diseases. Once registered, a claim can be filed at any point in the future.
Vizcarra was one of 517 deceased claims last year, the lowest number in the past five years. All claims were split between first-responders and survivors in 2020.
He said the money will offset some costs related to his wife’s treatment. Vizcarra said it also helps cover their children’s future.
“I could see how my kids are just knowing that, you know, things are gonna just gonna get better for them,” he said. “And that's all I really care about, just my girls, just making sure that their futures', you know, secure.”
Barasch said time is running out for families of those who died from 9/11-related disease prior to July 2019. He said they deserve this money for “a wrongful death.”
“This money can really make the difference between financial security,” Barasch said. “Let's face it: if someone had bankruptcy, it could bankrupt them if they died of cancer. It can bankrupt their family.”
Making a claim
The Justice Department administers the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The program has distributed nearly $7.76 billion to over 34,400 claimants over the last 10 years.
“Relieved to have what we thought was a very challenging year of unprecedented change behind us, we set ambitious internal goals for 2020 and focused on what needed to happen to transition the program to reflect its new permanent status,” Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the fund, said in a statement.
A help hotline is available at 855-885-1555.
Quick notes from the program:
- If you were certified by the World Trade Center Health Program for a 9/11-related health condition before July 29, 2019, you are required to register by July 29, 2021. This deadline ... provides an opportunity for potentially eligible individuals who did not know that the fund existed or was open to them, did not know that their condition was related to 9/11 exposure, or did not realize that they were eligible to file a claim or that fund would be in place beyond the previous 2020 end date, to register to file a claim.
- If you have not been certified by the health program for a 9/11-related physical health condition, or if any condition is certified after July 29, 2019, you may register by July 29, 2021, but you are not required to do so. You will be required to register within two years of the latest date on which the health program certifies your physical health condition as 9/11-related.
- If you are registering to file a claim for an individual who you believe died of a 9/11-related physical health condition before July 29, 2019, you are required to register with the fund by July 29, 2021.
- If you are registering to file a claim for an individual who you believe died of a 9/11-related physical health condition after July 29, 2019, you are required to register with the fund within two years of the date of death.