Families of fallen or severely disabled police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers are eligible for compensation from the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits fund. The benefits are available to the families of responders killed by a traumatic injury in the line of duty, or from a heart attack or stroke occurring within 24 hours of a non-routine stressful event. It is also available to responders severely disabled in the line of duty and unable to work. Qualifying responders are eligible for $339,881. Dependents of such qualifying responders are also eligible for financial aid for higher-education costs.
However, a September 2015 USA Today report that the average time for families to receive a decision on their application was more than a year, and sometimes two or more years. In response, Zadroga advocates and legislators have introduced bills to reduce the waiting time for families.
On July 12, 2016, Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King and staunch advocate of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which established both the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, introduced a bill that would make the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit fund more transparent and efficient. In May, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another zealous Zadroga advocate, and Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a similar version in the Senate.
Under the Zadroga Act, the World Trade Center Health Program is required to identify and research conditions with an apparent causal relationship to post 9/11 exposure to toxic dust and debris such as glass, asbestos, pulverized concrete, silicon, etc. Director of the World Trade Center Health Program, Dr. John Howard, regularly reviews peer-reviewed scientific studies, program statistics, and input from individual citizens and groups such as unions.
Conditions identified thus far include cancers such as non-melanoma skin, prostate, lymphoma, melanoma, thyroid, breast, and kidney; respiratory conditions such as asthma, GERD (persistent heartburn), reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), and sleep apnea related to such conditions; and mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and substance abuse. As new conditions are added to the list of covered conditions, individuals suffering from such conditions become eligible for free medical, monitoring, and treatment at the World Trade Center Health Program and the conditions become eligible for compensation under the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. For example, on July 5, 2016, the World Trade Center Health Program added new-onset COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and acute traumatic injury to the list of covered conditions. Accordingly, on July 15, 2016, September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Special Master Sheila Birnbaum announced that she was reviewing the rule to identify its impact on claims processing.
Additionally, the legislation would require the Department of Justice to report the status of every application online so that families can track their claim for compensation and receive a stated reason for any delays. Also, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program would be allowed to use federal, state, and local records regarding the responder’s cause of death to alleviate the burden on families of searching for and producing records.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Peter King announced the bills at a news conference held in front of a firehouse on the Upper West Side. Gillibrand commented “Our public safety officers know that death or serious injury is a real risk in their jobs, but they show up to work anyway, ready to help, and willing to sacrifice if that’s what it takes to make their communities safe. And when tragedy does strike, we should make it as easy as possible for their families to get the compensation they deserve and need.”
Zadroga advocate Congressman Peter King commented “Our first-responders always put themselves in harm’s way. Unfortunately, too many have made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives. The Public Safety Officer Benefits Program is a commitment to these heroes and their families. It is unconscionable that this commitment is too often mired in bureaucratic red tape.”
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, successor to former Fire Commissioner and Pitta Giblin & Baione’s Senior Director Salvatore Cassano, praised the bill, commenting “Since September 11, we have continued to lose members of the FDNY family, more than 110 of our members to date, because of illnesses directly related to their work in the rescue and recovery effort at the World Trade Center. It’s our job to fight for them, to honor them and to stand up for their families to make certain they are cared for after their terrible loss.”
For more information, please contact Pitta Giblin & Baione LLP at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 844-WTC-COMP.