Message from Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya
February 13, 2018
Today, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (“VCF” or “Fund”) publishes its Sixth Annual Status Report (available here) and the second Annual Reassessment of Policies and Procedures required under the terms of the Reauthorized Zadroga Act, Pub. L. No. 114-113 (Dec. 18, 2015). The report details the activities, advances, and accomplishments of a very productive year at the VCF.
Last year was our first full year of operation following the activities completed in 2016 to implement the reauthorization of the Zadroga Act, and it was my first full calendar year as Special Master. I am proud to say 2017 was the year with the largest number of claims decided since the VCF began issuing award determinations in early 2013, with initial or revised decisions issued on 7,773 claims, totaling almost $1.1 billion in awards. In all, the VCF has now surpassed $3.3 billion in compensation awarded, with 18,024 claims eligible for compensation as of December 31, 2017.
Our priority in 2017 remained, as always, the processing of claims, focused on issuing determinations on the oldest claims first. I am very pleased to report that as of December 31, 2017, less than 200 claims that were submitted before January 1, 2016, and that are ready for compensation review, remain to be decided. These claims continue to be our highest priority, but we are now fully immersed in deciding 2016 claims, and fully committed to reducing the time it takes to move a claim to determination.
To that end, we focused on revising processes and restructuring teams to maximize efficiency without compromising precision. We updated over a dozen policies, created new forms to support accurate claim submissions, and instituted a pre-screen process to identify missing information earlier in the process and speed up claim review. We also updated our guidance about what constitutes a “true” appeal, expanded explanations in correspondence about how decisions are made, and increased outreach efforts from our appeals team to claimants and counsel in an effort to ensure that only those claims and issues that are ripe and appropriate for appeal proceed to a hearing. As a result of these efforts, the raw number of appeal requests in response to eligibility denials and compensation determinations decreased considerably, while the proportion of claims for which an appeal was requested that ultimately resulted in a hearing was much higher. In all, we made 476 post-appeal decisions, nearly twice the number made in 2016.
Of equal importance to the speed and accuracy of our claims process is the need to reach a vast population of individuals who were exposed to the toxic elements resulting from 9/11, have gotten sick, and are either not aware that their illnesses may be connected, or not aware that compensation is available. Our outreach in 2017 was unprecedented for the VCF, and included fortifying working relationships with a variety of groups that represent the 9/11 community and provide the VCF with important visibility. I had the privilege of speaking at a number of Town Hall meetings and information sessions, including events hosted by the Manhattan Borough President and Voices of 9/11. In addition to my first Facebook Live event, I had the opportunity to do a number of media outreach events including interviews with PBS Frontline, Federal News Radio, and Fox News. And my team prepared for a series of pro bono claimant assistance clinics that took place just last month in New York, facilitated by volunteer law students (trained by VCF staff) from the New York Law School, and designed to provide free assistance to people who would like to file a claim with the VCF without an attorney.
Yet, along with my strong sense of accomplishment for the work done in 2017, I am humbled every day by the amount of work that remains to be done in response to the tremendous need for compensation that exists in the 9/11 community. As we enter 2018, I expect to build on the strong foundations established in 2017. My focus remains steady, determined to move claims through the process with utmost efficiency, and intent on reaching all potential eligible individuals who are not aware of the VCF. Looking to the coming year, we will continue to work closely with trusted partners at the World Trade Center Health Program and their Clinical Centers of Excellence, Voices of 9/11, the FealGood Foundation, 9/11 Health Watch, the World Trade Center Health Registry, and 9/11 Environmental Action. You can be assured that I will continue to update you on our progress and I remain very appreciative of your support. It is my privilege and honor to work with the talented and dedicated VCF staff every day. As a team and as individuals, we will continue to do our best to serve the 9/11 community.
As always, if you have questions about the VCF claims process, I encourage you to call our toll-free Helpline at 1-855-885-1555. For the hearing impaired, please call 1-855-885-1558 (TDD). If you are calling from outside the United States, please call 1-202-514-1100.