Federal officials had announced Tuesday that those with cancer will continue to be excluded from federal help for people with illnesses linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. There was too little scientific evidence linking cancer to time spent amid the dust and wreckage, a review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined.
Roughly 30 people attended the meeting at Queens Borough Hall, which was intended to explain the newly reopened September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to potential applicants.
In the two years after the attacks, the fund, established by Congress, gave $6 billion to victims' families and $1 billion to the injured. As part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed last year, the fund was re-opened and will dole out additional money to those who have become ill. The new fund expands coverage to a greater swath of lower Manhattan and extends the time period covered to March 2002.
New York attorney Sheila Birnbaum was appointed to administer the fund in May. She had the respect of many in the audience Wednesday, who acknowledged that she lacks the power to include cancer sufferers. But John Marshall, 52, of Brooklyn felt compelled to go to the meeting and speak his mind after he learned cancer was left off the list again.
A hush fell over the room as the retired New York Police Department detective rose to speak, his voice raspy through a breathing tube he has needed since treatment for throat cancer.
"This is an injustice. We're left out in the cold," said Marshall, who said he has medical insurance but worries about those who do not.
His feelings were echoed by Joseph Garofalo of Queens, a retired Department of Corrections officer who said he developed neurological and skin conditions from his time at ground zero. Now he runs a foundation for first responders.
"I don't buy what anybody's telling me, that I'm not a fact," he told Birnbaum during the meeting. Afterward, he said turnout by first responders had been low because "people became disgusted and irritated" about the cancer ruling.
Birnbaum said the fund will start accepting applications Oct. 1 but not all the money will be distributed right away. The fund will get $875 million in its first five years; the rest of the money will become available in its sixth year, Birnbaum said.
"This is a much bigger, much more comprehensive fund" for those were injured or sickened, she told those gathered. With the first fund, the bulk of the money went to relatives of those who died in the attacks.
Residents, workers and others who spent time at ground zero can apply, including those whose claims were denied by the first fund. Payouts will be calculated using a computer model, but people who are unhappy with how much money they get can appeal. The deadline for applications is September 2013 but if an illness is added, people suffering from that illness will get more time to apply.
The budget also covers administrative costs of dispensing the money, which Birnbaum said she hopes to keep at a minimum. She is working pro bono.
Birnbaum said she was trying to create an application that could be completed without the help of a lawyer. But applicants have the option of hiring a private lawyer who could earn no more than 10 percent of the payout. The office is also compiling a list of lawyers willing to work on the applications for free, she said.
The Zadroga Act also provided $1.5 billion to monitor the health of rescue and cleanup workers and treat illnesses classified as being related to ground zero. Research has linked sinus and lung problems to time spent in or near "the pit," as the wreckage was known. The act created a scientific advisory panel to look into adding illnesses to the list.
Federal officials will have another chance to include cancer among the diseases linked to 9/11 next year when they begin another review.
"It's very emotional," Birnbaum said after the meeting. "It's very hard to tell people that you're not covered under this ... but we just don't have the scientific evidence to support it at this point."
She's scheduled to speak at additional town hall meetings Thursday in Jersey City, N.J., and Tuesday in Melville, N.Y.