After powerful testimony from several key figures, including SPBMC client and retired FDNY Lieutenant Michael O’Connell and former Daily Show host and 9/11 victims advocate Jon Stewart, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted in favor of an extension to the Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The VCF will be extended through 2090. Also present at the hearing were House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, New York Congressman Peter King, Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya, SPBMC Counsel Wendell Tong and SPBMC client Joseph McKay, among others. Members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York (UFA NYC) were present in solidarity with the victims, firefighters, first responders and families affected by 9/11.
The hearing was one of several steps required to pass the “Never Forget the Heroes Act,” which funds the Victim Compensation Fund until 2090, providing compensation for every 9/11 first responder who has developed illnesses related to toxic exposure during and after the 9/11 terrorist attack, survivors and their families. This extension would effectively make the fund permanent, and any awards to 9/11 victims that were previously reduced would be increased to 100% of the original award. Congresswoman Maloney, who represents New York’s 12th congressional district, sponsored the bill. During the hearing, the Congresswoman said, “This bill is about fulfilling our promise to ‘Never Forget.’ And we won’t stop fighting until we guarantee that this program will be there for anyone and everyone who needs it.” The bill is expected to be voted upon by the full House in July.
Mr. O’Connell echoed the Congresswoman’s sentiment in his testimony, saying, “Now it is your [the committee’s] turn, you were not there on the Pile, but what you do in this moment is just as important as what we all did at Ground Zero. I ask you all, respectfully, how is it fair that I was duly compensated, but others that are now sick and dying from their exposure will not be?” Mr. O’Connell worked for weeks at Ground Zero, helping to recover survivors and remains for the families of those who lost loved ones. In 2007, he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease known as sarcoidosis. He was one of the youngest and first firefighters
diagnosed with the disease, and suffered complications that forced him into early retirement.
Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya spoke to the growing number of claims under the VCF, which has driven the need for additional funding. “As a result of increasing outreach, not only within the federal government but by victims’ advocacy groups, many of which are represented here today, by the World Trade Center Health Program, and by the lawyers who represent over 80 percent of VCF claimants, but also as a harbinger of the increasing seriousness of 9/11-related illnesses, the VCF received a record number of new claims in 2018 and is on pace to exceed that number in 2019. For perspective, in the first five years of the Fund, through Dec. 31, 2016, roughly 19,000 compensation forms were filed. In the two years after that, through December 2018, almost 20,000 additional compensation forms were filed, with an additional 7,700 compensation forms filed so far in 2019,” she said.
Jon Stewart, who has been a long-time advocate for 9/11 victims, survivors and their families,
also spoke to the committee, saying, “More of these men and women are going to get sick and they’re going to die, and I am awfully tired of hearing that it’s a 9/11, New York issue.” The VCF is federally funded, and will continue to be federally funded under the Never Forget the Heroes Act.
The attorneys at SPBMC including Counsel Wendell Tong and Partner Nicholas Papain, both of whom have been intimately involved with VCF cases, are grateful to the House Judiciary Committee for unanimously voting in favor of this vital piece of legislation. We also thank Mr. O’Connell for his testimony, and for the bravery, sacrifice and strength exhibited by he and his family. It is our hope that each and every firefighter, first responder, survivor, victim and their families will be honored and duly compensated for the sacrifices made on that momentous day in United States’ history.