NEW YORK — The federal fund for people with illnesses related to the Sept. 11 attacks said Friday it has been able to issue compensation decisions to only 112 people out of nearly 55,000 who have applied so far — a performance one advocacy group called unacceptable.
In her second annual report, Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund special master Sheila Birnbaum said her staff had spent much of the year resolving bureaucratic problems and dealing with a huge surge in applications that arrived as people exposed to dust at the World Trade Center raced to beat an October filing deadline.
The fund has been able to award only $27.2 million of the $2.78 billion appropriated by Congress. Little of that money has actually reached people, because of a decision to hold back 90 percent of the cash until administrators know whether they will have enough in the fund to pay all claims.
The slow pace has upset some advocates for the sick. It also raises questions about whether the fund has the resources to handle the mountain of applications from police officers, firefighters, construction workers, and other people who were caught in the dust cloud when the twin towers collapsed, or who worked on the burning debris pile.
"I wouldn't say it was a struggle. I would call it a learning experience," Birnbaum said in a phone interview Friday.
She added, though, that she believed the fund's staff and lawyers representing applicants had overcome some of the issues that initially caused things to get bogged down. Birnbaum said she was optimistic that the process will shift into gear in the coming months.
"Our major goal is to get as many claims through the process as quickly as we can. Whatever it takes to do that, we're going to do that," she said.
The fund recently boosted staff numbers to relieve the bottleneck. It now employs 75 people, up from 31 a year ago, and Birnbaum said she would probably add more people in the coming months.
9/11 Health Watch, an advocacy group, said in a statement that the small number of awards issued to date is "unacceptable."
"It was bad enough that responders, survivors, and their families had to wait a decade for the legislation creating the VCF to be passed. Now, they are forced to wait for many months for final determinations from the fund; this is time they literally cannot afford," the group said. "While we understand the challenges of setting up and managing this compensation program, quite simply, the VCF has to do better in order for the promise of the law and our commitment to those eligible to be fulfilled."
Birnbaum said one big hurdle has been difficulty gathering required documents.
Applicants need to submit a host of signed releases so the fund can gather paperwork verifying that they were present at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or the field in western Pennsylvania where terrorists crashed a hijacked jet. They also have to document a diagnosis that they suffer from an illness that might be related to the attacks. Finally, applicants must document any economic losses they suffered as a result of their illness.
Only about 2,500 people have submitted complete eligibility forms, and only a few hundred have sent in all the documents required to issue a compensation decision, Birnbaum said.