9/11 Victim Compensation Fund seeks to speed up payments to WTC attack survivors
Victims' lawyers put on notice to have all paperwork submitted in order to speed up the application process
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Lawyers for people suffering cancer and other diseases blamed on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania crash site are on notice: Get your clients’ paperwork in order.
The federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund wants to speed up its operations so survivors still suffering from the toxins floating above Ground Zero and other sites receive financial support more quickly — and to do so, it needs lawyers to be more organized, the Daily News has learned.
Over the last few months, the VCF has repeatedly cracked down on attorneys who file compensation applications, demanding that all the necessary documentation needed for approval be handed in at the beginning of the process.
Lawyers specializing in 9/11 illness claims — who submit 86% of applications — file an initial claim, but wait weeks or months to send in the necessary documentation, the Victim Compensation Fund says.
That holds up the VCF’s review and approval of claims, the fund’s officials say.
Requiring applications to be in what the agency calls in “good order” is expected to reduce the application process from a current average of 16 months to a year or less, officials said.
It will also help both 9/11 survivors and attorneys when the VCF rolls out its new online application portal early next year.
While survivors could apply online before, the new state-of-the-art portal will go over step-by-step on what an applicant needs and where they can find the information they need.
But the new portal won’t accept any applications until all the necessary paperwork is submitted, officials said.
VCF Special Master Allison Turkel noted that more than 50% of compensation claims submitted to the VCF office are not in good order and have to be sent back for more documentation.
“We spend time waiting for the information we need,” Turkel told The News. “Touching claims multiple times greatly hinders efficient processing.”
To drive their point about the unfinished applications home, the VCF sent attorneys who have submitted more than 500 compensation claims to their office lists of their applications which were held back because of missing documentation as well as tips on how they could find these documents in the future.
Survivors filed 9,443 compensation claims with the VCF between January and the winter of 2022, according to agency statistics. When they were reviewed, 6,004 of the applications, or 63%, were considered “premature” and were sent back because the claims didn’t have all the needed materials, officials said.
Attorneys filed 8,352 of last year’s applications — 88% of the requests sent out last year. Out of that number 4,972, or 59%, of the applications weren’t complete when filed.
The VCF still has to review 28 applications filed in late 2022, officials said.
Turkel said the crackdown appears to be working. Over the past few months, the number of applications coming in have dropped, leading the VCF to believe that lawfirms are waiting to get all the proper paperwork in before submitting them.
Advocates for 9/11 survivors applauded the move, hoping it will speed up the approval process.
“The VCF under both the Trump and Biden Administration’s has been working to ‘transform’ the VCF, so that they can cut the time it takes to make determinations,” said Benjamin Chavet, executive director of the 9/11 Health Watch.
“[Our local federal legislators] have been working to make sure that this gets done so that injured 9/11 responders and survivors get the compensation they need and deserve as quickly as possible.
Attorneys admit to sending the necessary paperwork in fits and starts after applying, but claim some of the paperwork needed takes time to pull together.
The two biggest hurdles for applicants is getting the World Trade Center Health Program to verify that their client has a certified 9/11 illness and a “proof of presence” — documentation or witness statements that put their client at Ground Zero in the days and weeks after 9/11.
“The hardest thing is getting the proof that you were there,” said attorney Michael Barasch of Barasch & McGarry, who has sought compensation for thousands of 9/11 survivors over the years.
“It’s easy if you were a firefighter, because the Fire Department kept meticulous records,” Barasch said. “But for the office worker who was down there — they didn’t keep in touch with their former colleagues, and 9/11 was more than 20 years ago.”
The VCF said it has built relationships with many of the agencies that responded to the terror attacks and companies that operated out of the Twin Towers or lower Manhattan on 9/11. Many survivors no longer need to send in witness statements if they follow a proof of presence chart on the website, officials said.
While survivors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can get their illnesses certified as a 9/11 condition through one of five hospitals connected to the World Trade Center Health Program, survivors who live in other states have had trouble getting certified because of a backlog, Barasch said.
“Sometimes we file the application piecemeal because we figure we’ll get the records long before the VCF looks at the claim,” Barasch said. “But the certification with the health program is taking much longer for applicants because they’re understaffed. It’s a perfect storm that’s delaying the process.
“I understand why the VCF wants to make these changes, but things need to drastically improve with the health program to speed up the certification process,” Barasch said.
In an attempt to speed things along, the World Trade Center Health Program in June announced that it will increase the number of clinicians and care providers in their network who can certify a 9/11 illness to over 1 million.
Since 2011, the VCF has 80,483 claims and has doled out more than $10 billion in compensation to survivors for medical care and other financial needs.
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