MANHATTAN (CN) – As the 20-year milestone of 9/11 fast approaches, so too does the bottom of the coffers for funds for survivors and first responders killed or sickened during the terrorist attacks, fund officials are warning.
During a conference call on Friday, Rupa Bhattacharyya, the administrator of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund said that any new claims will be significantly reduced — some by as much as 70 percent — to prepare for an estimated $5 billion funding shortfall.
Established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the fund was reauthorized in 2010 with $7.35 billion set to expire in 2020. Since its inception, the VCF has approved more than 21,000 claims and paid out nearly $5 billion in claims, but an increase in claims over the last four months has caused fund administrators to propose cutting back benefits.
Roughly 17,000 claims are pending and thousands of claims are expected to be filed over the next year, Bhattacharyya told reporters.
Bhattacharyya noted that an October report revealing the fund would soon run out of cash promoted a “deluge of new claims.”
About 8,100 claims were filed in the past four months, nearly the amount received in a typical year, according to a status report the VCF released Friday. More than 4,000 claims were received in January alone.
During the conference call, Bhattacharyya apologized several times for the fund’s dire financial straits and the “unfairness” of proposed cuts.
“It is the best that we could do under the constraints under the law and the funding we were given,” she said, later adding that “I sincerely regret that I made a promise that I cannot keep.”
The VCF projects the fund will receive about 11,000 new claims and 7,000 additional new amendments through the end of 2020. Many of those are likely to be survivors alleging personal injuries from the terrorist attacks and cancer claims — all of which have seen significant increases in the past several months, Bhattacharyya said.
The “fairest strategy,” Bhattacharyya said, is to implement a percentage reduction in pending and future claims, so newer applicants can get at least some money.
“I wanted to make some allowance for claimants already in the system,” she said of the planned award reductions. “I could not abide a plan that at the end of the day would leave some clamiants uncompensated.”
Under Bhattacharyya’s plan, any claim or amendment made on or before Feb. 1 would be reduced by 50 percent. Claims or amendments received by the fund after Feb. 2 would be reduced by 70 percent. In both cases, collateral offsets from other sources — such as from Social Security or from legal settlements — would be subtracted from the full value and would not be reduced.
Bhattacharyya reported that the fund could run out of cash in an October notice in the Federal Register.
A joint letter after that report from New York legislators — Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King — called for other lawmakers to allocate more money to the fund.
“Congress needs to fix this now before waiting until the last minute and putting our heroes through more suffering and anxiety over whether their federal government will stand with them in their time of need,” the legislators wrote.
Even greater numbers of claims may start flooding the VCF, however. In December, Michael Crane, a top medical director at the WTC Health Program, said that first responders with post-traumatic stress syndrome should also receive access to the VCF.
While the VCF enjoys bipartisan support in name, some on Capitol Hill have at various points worked against increasing its funding.
Congress voted 255-159 in 2010 to block the reopening of VCF funding, with some Republicans expressing concern about the fund’s nearly $7.4 billion price tag. That bill, known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — after a first responder who died of cancer due to exposure at Ground Zero — eventually was signed into law, appropriating $7.3 billion.
Republicans in 2015 also delayed an amendment to reappropriate funds for the VCF.
While an associate White House counsel for the Bush administration, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested capping fund claims at $500,000, according to a report by the New York Daily News.
A bill to reauthorize the fund is likely to be reintroduced during this next legislative session.
Nearly 3,000 people died during the terrorist attacks in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Thousands of others, including first responders and volunteers, have died or taken ill due to the toxic chemicals and substances near Ground Zero and the other two areas.