NEW YORK — For many of those who responded to ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, stark reminders of the unthinkable tragedy and days spent sifting through the rubble remain with them each day — inside their lungs.
Despite assurances from government officials that the air at ground zero was safe, it was later revealed that serious toxins put responders — and those who lived, worked or studied in Lower Manhattan — at risk for serious health problems.
The Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund was established in 2001 to provide financial relief to those who suffered physical injury, and to the families of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks and the immediate aftermath.
Now, 20 years later, the VCF and the World Trade Center Health Program are actively providing benefits to those who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and the months that followed. But the programs are also open to anybody who lived, worked or studied in the exposure area in Lower Manhattan, too.
In the years since the terror attack, 80% of responders ground zero have registered for the program, with NYPD officers and FDNY firefighters and other personnel well aware of the benefits afforded to them. But according to 9/11 attorney Michael Barasch, less than 10% of hundreds of thousands of others have enrolled — for most of them, it’s because they don’t know they’re eligible.
First, let’s talk a little history.
So — technically the original VCF closed in 2004. But on Jan. 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, a.k.a. the Zadroga Act. (Barasch was an attorney who represented Zadroga.) It reopened the VCF to claims for a period of several years. In 2015, President Donald Trump signed an additional extension of the act.
Fast forward to 2019: In a massive push in Washington led by responders John Feal and Louis Alvarez, along with longtime advocate and talk show host Jon Stewart, Congress passed and the president signed a permanent authorization of the VCF, funding the program completely, and extending the filing window to the year 2090.
Ok, so what is the VCF?
The Victim Compensation Fund — first launched in 2001, and later extended for decades to come — provides financial compensation to those people who have suffered physical injury or illness due to the Sept. 11 terror attacks and its aftermath; loved ones whose family members died from 9/11-related illnesses can also receive compensation.
What is the WTC Health Program?
That same legislation in 2010 created the World Trade Center Health Program. It provides free health monitoring and medical treatment to those with 9/11-related illnesses for the rest of their lives.
And, if you are certified by the World Trade Center Health Program with a 9/11-related illness, then the VCF will award you compensation.
Two of a kind
The VCF and WTC Health Program are closely intertwined and very much work together, though they are different entities.
Barasch recommends any eligible person who was living, working or studying in the exposure zone — or those who responded to ground zero — register for both programs as soon as possible, even if you’re completely healthy. You lock in your eligibility, and if you become sick at a later date with a 9/11-related illness, you have these benefits to help you.
If you’ve registered for both programs and later get sick, you’d submit it to the World Trade Center Health Program. They’d then certify you and provide medical treatment — and the VCF will provide you financial compensation.
In addition to those in New York City, responders and others at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania also qualify.
Plus, for those impacted that have moved away, eligibility doesn’t change. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, said of the nation’s 435 Congressional Districts, 434 of them have someone in the health program.
At the time this article was published, there was a bill in Congress to provide additional funding to the programs, due to an increase in the number of associated illnesses, inflation, and other financial specifics not accounted for in recent laws.
“We made a pledge never to forget; we should keep that pledge,” Maloney said.
I heard something about a deadline. Is it too late for me to sign up?
No! The recent July 29 deadline that made headlines and prompted pushes from lawmakers to get as many people signed up as possible only applied to a very specific scenario.
It was meant for loved ones of people who died of 9/11-related illnesses more than two years ago. These families were given a window that extended their right to register a claim more than two years after their loved one died.
For families of loved ones registering for these programs, going forward, you must sign up within two years of the date of their death. Still, Barasch says, don’t be discouraged: the special master — who leads the program — will listen to extenuating circumstances to help families who missed the deadline.
“Don’t assume you aren’t eligible, register anyway,” Barasch said. “Don’t lose this opportunity.”
Did that guy take his own advice?
Yes. Barasch said he and the entirety of his eligible staff have enrolled. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Barasch was working out at a gym just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. His office was only a few blocks farther. Several employees on his team have suffered from 9/11-related health complications over the years.
How do I apply?
To sign up for the VCF, visit www.vcf.org or click here.
To sign up for the WTC Health Program, visit www.cdc.gov/wtc or click here.
Common advice from advocates: Register for each one separately, and do so at the same time.
Plus, applying as soon as possible is beneficial, because it’ll be easier for you to amass any documents necessary to prove eligibility.
What do I have to prove?
You may need documentation, such as employment verification or a witness reference letter proving you were in fact in the exposure zone between Sept. 11, 2001 and May 30, 2002.
Why is it so complicated? Can’t I just say I was there?
Whenever the government is giving out money, there’s always a concern of fraud. In order to make sure people don’t take advantage of the system, you have to prove you qualify.
This sounds like one of those late-night commercials telling me I can get money
Sure, but this is completely legit. It’s appropriated by Congress, funded by the government, operated by federal officials and exists to make sure those heroes who stepped in to help New York recover from tragedy, and those in Lower Manhattan who were unknowingly breathing toxins, are taken care of for the rest of their lives.