An In-depth Exploration of the Disparities Between the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and How a New Law Aims to Equalize Support for All Affected.
According to Fortune.com, unclaimed 9/11 compensation amounting to billions is now the focus of a new law. This legislation will require major banks such as JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs to notify survivors who were in close proximity to Ground Zero during the attacks.
On the evening of September 10, 2015, right before the anniversary of the World Trade Center’s terrorist attacks, Ken Muller suffered a collapse as he was managing a data center for an investment firm in Connecticut, diagnosed with kidney cancer. His brother-in-law, a police officer who had worked at the site of the tragedy clearing rubble, remembered Ken as a 9/11 “civilian” and a Goldman Sachs worker. Ken was nearby Ground Zero when the hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers. “After the surgery, one of the earliest memories is my brother-in-law giving me paperwork,” Muller recounts. “He told me, ‘You need to apply for these 9/11 health and compensation plans.'”
Ken Muller’s left kidney and a massive tumor surrounding it were removed, followed by 54 weeks of chemotherapy treatment. The treatments left him unfit to return to his job. However, a significant monetary award for his agony and a guarantee for covering medical expenses not paid by his usual insurance gave him financial stability and access to top-quality medical care, leading to a current diagnosis of being “cancer-free.” “I’ll be here to watch my granddaughters grow into young women,” Muller says.
A new form of the groundbreaking “9/11 Notice Act,” recently passed without opposition by New York‘s State legislature. For the first time, it requires financial institutions to take the lead in securing justice for 9/11 survivors. Prominent financial firms like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Amex, who were major employers in the Ground Zero vicinity on September 11, 2001, will soon join the effort.
Yet, it’s no small feat to reach out to those affected by 9/11-linked diseases. Muller observes, “The connection isn’t always made. It’s been 22 years. Illnesses manifest years after, and they aren’t always attributed to 9/11. Sometimes individuals believe their health problems stem from other factors. The advertising for 9/11 survivors on streaming services might go unnoticed, or the local media campaign might not reach those who have relocated.” Many, he adds, may even “feel guilty” about enrolling, wrongly assuming they would be diverting funds from heroic first responders who became ill or disabled.
Employers Will Begin Leading the Information Campaign for 9/11 Survivors
Approved on June 19, the 9/11 Notice Act is en route to Governor Kathy Hochul’s office, where it’s expected to be signed into law. The legislation will obligate employers who were active near Ground Zero during and after the disaster—including major banks and brokers—to reach out to all living past and present employees. They must explain the potential exposure to harmful toxins from the fiery blast and inform them of their potential entitlement to free medical care and financial compensation. Despite billions being available in aid for these “survivors,” applications have been relatively rare compared to those from first responders.
Is the reason for this that they are suffering fewer illnesses than firefighters and police? Or are they lacking the information and assistance that individuals like Muller could provide, and that, if disseminated by influential institutions, could lure many more to these programs? This new campaign, led primarily by Wall Street, hopes to shed light on these lingering questions.
The Notice Act also applies to big businesses like top financial firms, as well as active law firms, restaurant chains, schools, foundations, city agencies in lower Manhattan and Western Brooklyn, or any other vendors. If a current company acquired a business that was in the area on 9/11, they must notify all eligible employees from that business, whether they remain employed or not. Some businesses that no longer exist, like Lehman Bros., won’t send notifications.
For instance, Intercontinental Exchange, which bought the NYSE in 2013, will be required to contact the entire workforce from the 9/11 era that is still alive. The same rule applies to Bank of America for Merrill Lynch’s employees at the World Financial Center on 9/11. Even local businesses like Wall Street retailer Century 21 must contact its staff from that time, whether they are still employed or not. The timeframe includes the fall of the Twin Towers until the end of May 2002, so all workers, from electricians to teachers, who spent substantial time in the zone during those months are due significant communication from their current or past employers.
As it stands, the bill doesn’t detail how companies must make contact or what guidance they need to provide for survivors to claim the medical coverage and payouts to which they’re entitled. New York’s politicians, however, praise the law as a crucial step for those missing out on benefits, not because they’re undeserving, but due to ignorance about the 9/11 programs and what they provide. Assemblyman Nader Sayegh, who sponsored the Notice Act in the lower chamber, emphasized, “Victims who have been overlooked—including office staff, doormen, builders, students, teachers, retail employees, delivery personnel—must be informed of their eligibility by their employers” to combat “a complete lack of awareness.”
Major Wall Street employers have remained silent on the legislation, and those approached by Fortune refrained from commenting. However, with broad public support, as demonstrated by the unanimous passage in the legislature, it seems probable that we will soon witness an unprecedented initiative to reach the group in most need of assistance: the 9/11 civilians.
Most Respondents Gain Advantages from Both Programs
There are two interrelated initiatives: the Health Program for the World Trade Center and the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). They cater to two distinct groups of individuals and families affected by the 9/11 tragedy: the “emergency responders” and the “survivors.” This encompasses not only those in emergency services, such as firefighters and police, but also includes various National Guard personnel, representatives from the Red Cross, and construction employees. The survivors’ group consists of those who resided, were employed, or attended school in the risk area. On that tragic day, approximately 35,000 people lived there, while 50,000 were students or educators, and roughly 315,000 were employed in lower Manhattan, totaling around 400,000 known as civilians.
A significant portion of those more than 300,000 workers were likely employed by financial service firms. During mid-2001, these companies occupied about 55% of all office spaces in the 9/11 zone. Major tenants comprised not only renowned banks like Citi and JPMorgan Chase but also stock exchanges (such as NYSE and NYMEX), rating agencies (like S&P, Moody’s), and insurers (e.g., AIG, Marsh & McLennan). Though individual companies have made efforts to educate and assist, the Notify Law signifies the inaugural official initiative.
Approximately 100,000 were counted as first responders. Almost all who are still alive, about 86,000, participate in the Health Program. Of these, nearly 60% (roughly 50,000) have developed cancer or other certified conditions such as respiratory issues or PTSD. The remaining 36,000 have not fallen sick but have met the criteria by substantiating their front-line duties and joining the plan. Participants will receive complimentary care if they develop any of the 69 currently recognized cancers or other illnesses.
Both programs share a fundamental principle: they assume that any approved ailments stemmed from the toxins released in the catastrophe, not from unrelated sources. An attorney explained that external factors or family history are irrelevant. For example, if someone was exposed to the toxic zone and later developed a related illness, the exposure is assumed to be the cause. The required funding appears to be secured by Congress, along with New York City, even if future claims exceed expectations.
The VCF provides awards for individual pain and suffering and lost wages, as well as payments to families of those who succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses—accounting for fewer than 6% of the 49,000 claims paid by the VCF from 2011 to 2022. (The original VCF awarded compensation to the families of those who died in the attacks from 2002 to 2004.) Of nearly 50,000 recent payments, about 31,000 were made to responders or their relatives. Nearly all qualifying responders have received these payments.
Survivor Participation is Far Behind That of the First Responders
The divide between first responders and survivors is evident in both programs. This is surprising given that those who lived or worked in the area outnumber the emergency personnel four to one. The Health Plan covers only 37,000 survivors, less than a third of the total members. As Ben Chevat, chief of 9/11 Health Watch, observes, survivors can only join if they are already diagnosed or show symptoms, whereas all responders can enroll proactively.
One notable disparity: Despite their greater numbers, survivors have received about 17,000 payments in the VCF’s 11-year history, only half as many as the responders.
If any eligible survivors have not claimed their entitlements, they are missing substantial funds, especially for cancers that make up a large share of the payouts. Various illnesses have different compensation amounts; for example, asthma brings $20,000, while different types of cancer may command up to $250,000. Wrongful death cases are the most highly compensated, with the surviving spouse receiving $250,000 plus lost wages and each dependent child receiving $100,000. Barasch estimates the average wrongful death payment to be around $500,000.
In total, between 2011 and 2022, the VCF distributed $10.9 billion, with the average recipient receiving $223,000.
Understanding the Fund for 9/11 Survivors
Barasch believes the discrepancy in numbers between responders and survivors indicates a large population of civilians are eligible but not receiving health care and financial benefits. While his firm would profit from such a situation, he sees a daily struggle to get qualifying survivors to come forward. “Their exposure to the toxic environment was similar to the responders,” he says. “Their lack of enrollment is due to a lack of awareness or misunderstandings about eligibility. The resources are abundant for all.”
Muller concurs that the gap is not due to fewer illnesses among survivors but a lack of information. “The unions did well in informing their members, whereas employers lacked that responsibility. The Notice Act will help level the playing field, doing for civilians what was done for emergency workers,” he says.
The Notice Act is a positive step. Kimberly Flynn, director of 9/11 Environmental Action, feels that the complicated paperwork has hindered many deserving individuals from accessing care. She hopes employers can streamline the process.
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