Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund Experiences Spike In Claims
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today's 14th anniversary of the September 11 attacks is a reminder of a deadline that's looming for thousands of people who developed health problems related to the attacks. October 3 of next year will be the last day to submit a claim with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Money from the fund is awarded to help cover costs like medical bills. So far, it's paid out more than $1.4 billion to more than 6,000 people. And there are thousands more waiting for their applications to be processed. Sheila Birnbaum oversees the fund. We reached her today in Dallas where she's at a conference. Welcome to the program.
SHEILA BIRNBAUM: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: So remind us who this fund is meant to help. Who are the kinds of people who have applied for support?
BIRNBAUM: Most of the claimants have been first responders - firemen, policemen, emergency workers but not entirely. They are people who worked in the neighborhoods, who lived in the neighborhoods and who have had certain types of illnesses that have been determined by the federal government to be related to 9/11.
CORNISH: About a third of the cases approved under this fund involved cancer-related illnesses. Can you tell us what other major health issues that you've been seeing in the claims?
BIRNBAUM: Yes. Besides cancers, there are respiratory illnesses, gastric illnesses that have been approved as being related to the World Trade Center, and that's mostly the bulk of the other claims.
CORNISH: Now, I understand there's been an increase in the number of people filing claims over the last year - 4,000 more. And here we are 14 years after the attacks. Do you have a reason? Do you understand, maybe, why that's happened?
BIRNBAUM: We expect actually more people to be filing claims. There are over 65,000 people that have registered with the fund. So in the next year, which is the last year of the fund, we expect we're going to see many more claims.
CORNISH: But why? Are you essentially saying this is a paperwork issue and now these numbers are increasing because more people are working their way through the system, or are there more people who are saying, yes, I realize my illness could've been related to work I did or being in and around the 9/11 site?
BIRNBAUM: Yeah. I think it's a combination of both factors. One is people are filing their completed claims and checking that we're doing a better job getting claims reviewed and through the process.
CORNISH: When the fund was first established, people did raise concerns about protecting against fraud. Now that we're many years in, what turned out to be the case?
BIRNBAUM: Oh, we've seen very few incidents of fraud. At any time fraud is reported to us or that we suspect that there's fraud, there's an investigation done by the Department of Justice. So far, there have been no charges brought against anybody.
CORNISH: Congress approved this fund to be a limited program. Are you going to have the funds to cover this - to cover all of the claims?
BIRNBAUM: Well, we probably will not. If Congress doesn't give additional funds, then we will have to prorate each individual claimant's amount that they received down proportionately. So that was what Congress provided, and that's what we'll do when the fund ends. What we're trying to do as often and as strong as possible is to advise that people need to get all their claims information in as quickly as possible because one year will come and go very quickly.
CORNISH: Sheila Birnbaum is the special master who oversees the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BIRNBAUM: Thank you so much for having me, especially on this day.
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