The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is cutting its payouts in half for some and by as much as 70 percent for others, as the fund faces a surge in claims ahead of its expiration date in December 2020.
The fund, which was opened in 2011, compensates for deaths and illnesses due to exposure to toxins at the sites of the September 11th attacks. The $7.3 billion fund has already paid out about $5 billion to 21,000 claimants. But it still has about 19,000 additional unpaid claims to address.
With resources rapidly dwindling, the fund said any pending claims will be paid at 50 percent of their prior value. Claims received after February 1 of this year will be paid at 30 percent.
"I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation," the fund's administrator, Rupa Bhattacharyya, wrote in an announcement on Friday. "... But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice. If there had been a different option available to me, I assure you I would have taken it."
In October, Bhattacharyya issued notice that the fund's balance was falling. Since then, she said, about 8,000 new claims were made, equal to the number of claims the fund usually receives in a single year.
That's not the only factor driving claims, according to Bhattacharyya.
She said the number of claims from family members on behalf of loved ones who passed away from illnesses linked to the 9/11 attacks saw a 235 percent increase since December 2015. Bhattacharyya said the number of cancer claims has also increased, along with those from people who lived, worked, or went to school near the sites of the attacks.
"From the very beginning, there has never been a good estimate of how many potential claimants there are, partly because there's never been a good estimate of how many people were exposed, particularly in the New York City area," Bhattacharyya said.
She also attributed the surge in claims to cancer latency periods. "Some of the diseases that could arise from exposure to the toxins in the air in the New York City area, we may not see for several years," Bhattacharyya told NPR.
The announcement has spurred shock and outrage from 9/11 responders, their families and victims advocates like John Feal.
In 2001, Feal was working as a demolition supervisor at Ground Zero when an 8,000-pound piece of steel crushed his foot. Feal nearly died when the subsequent infected wound became septic. The accident cost Feal half his foot, and his job.
Feal told NPR he was upset by news of the reduced payouts.
"I cried. It was devastating," he said. "Thousands of people are going to suffer, that are already suffering ... Congress continues to put deadlines in, arbitrary dates on our legislation that we now passed a couple times, but these illnesses — cancer and respiratory illnesses — they have no deadlines."
Some members of Congress are seeking to replenish the fund and extend its mandate past its 2020 cut off date. In a statement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said:
"Cancer rates in the 9/11 first responder community are rising higher than ever, which means the VCF is more important than ever. We cannot tell them, 'Sorry, we don't have the funds for you.' We cannot turn our backs on these heroes – not now, not ever. Remembering 9/11 should be more than a bumper sticker, and that's why I will be reintroducing bipartisan legislation soon with Senator Cory Gardner and others that will ensure that the men and women injured by the toxins at Ground Zero are never forgotten."
Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, told NPR such legislation would be "doing the right thing for people who gave of themselves on 9-11, our worst terrorist attack."
Fifteen FBI agents died of illnesses attributed to their post-9/11 service, and an additional 30 have illnesses related to their 9/11 exposure.
"They didn't think twice about going and working these sites, and we shouldn't think twice about supporting them and their families in their times of need," O'Connor said.
He and Feal are now pushing for the fund to be extended to 2090, equal to the duration of the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical benefits to people impacted by the 9/11 attacks.
"Most Americans have moved on over the last 18 years, and rightfully so," Feal told NPR. "But for those who are deeply effected by 9/11, and are waiting for claims, this day hasn't ended for them. 9/11 continues."