Statement of 911 Health Watch on Sheila Birnbaum stepping down as Special Master of September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF)
Statement of 911 Health Watch Inc. on Sheila Birnbaum stepping down as Special Master of September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) and Attorney General Loretta Lynch appointing Ms. Rupa Bhattacharyya, currently the Director, Torts Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice as the new Special Master to run the program and make decisions over the compensation that injured 9/11 responders, survivors and their families should receive.
We want to thank Ms. Birnbaum for her hard work over the last five years. Ms. Birnbaum has done a tremendous service to the 9/11 community by volunteering her time and expertise to making sure those who were injured or ill by the 9/11 attacks get the financial support and assistance that they deserve. She has worked hard at fulfilling the requirements of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and dealing with the challenges of restarting the Victim Compensation Fund after it was shut down in 2003. We know that she put her heart into the effort, along with the staff of the VCF and on behalf of the many thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors across the country, we want to acknowledge her efforts and thank her.
As for the appointment of Ms. Bhattacharyya, we know she will face serious challenges in implementing the 2015 reauthorization and to finally get 9/11 responders and survivors the compensation that they have been waiting for.
We should remember why after nearly 15 years after 9/11 we still need the VCF. After years of delays and unmatched efforts from responders and survivors and their supporters from across the country, Congress finally passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010 to provide health and compensation to thousands of injured 9/11 responders and survivors. But in order to get the legislation passed and to the President at the end of the 2010 Congressional session, complex compromises were made that limited the funding available for the VCF and forced the creation of a complicated pro rata payment system that further delayed the full financial assistance help that 9/11 responders and survivors deserved and needed. Special Master Birnbaum had to deal with these limitations when she reopened the VCF in 2011. As a result of these difficulties, it took a long time to get the VCF up and running.
Now that the Congress has finally provided sufficient funds to the VCF, done away with the pro rata requirements and given it five more years to operate and provide compensation, it is more important than ever that the Justice Department and the VCF move as quickly as possible to process the remaining claims and make payments to the injured 9/11 responders and survivors that have been waiting.
We need the Justice Department to be focused on fulfilling the VCF’s mission. It should not have taken the Justice Department almost six months to replace the expertise of the Deputy Special Master who left in December and the Justice Department still has not presented a plan to revamp the VCF’s computer management system, which has never properly functioned. This is a particular concern because thousands “Group B” claims still require determinations and these cases will be more complex and difficult than the “Group A” claim determinations that have been successfully processed. It goes without saying that many of those claimants have been waiting for years for the help they need.
We are now approaching the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We will be looking forward to meeting and working with the new Special Master to ensure that the she has the full support of the Justice Department and a detailed plan as to how the VCF will be able to process the pending claims and make determinations as soon as possible for the thousands that have been waiting for so long to get the help that they need and deserve.
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