Shortfall in 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund leaves some responder families with nothing

Steep cuts in the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund are turning out to be much worse than the 50% forecast earlier this year — in real life, some people are getting nothing.

The special master who oversees the fund announced in February that it was running out of money, and had to slash pending payouts by half, and payments for future applications by 70%.

For victims of the 2001 terror attacks or the surviving families of responders who have recently died, that was a tough blow. But because of rules on how the fund figures awards, the checks now going out are even smaller.

“Absolutely zero,” is what Jeanette Albanese said she is getting after receiving her award letter.

Her NYPD husband, James, died from 9/11-linked esophageal cancer in late 2013. He spent months at Ground Zero and months at the Staten Island landfill where debris, evidence, and human remains were sorted.

The application process for compensation is rigorous and painstaking. It’s designed to prevent fraud and to try to ensure that the people who need the money the most get it. But it can take years.

Jeannette and James Albanese applied while he was alive in 2013. She had to start over when he died less than a year later.

On Feb. 15, when VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya announced the cuts, Albanese had yet to receive her award. Of the $7.375 billion that Congress gave the fund to last through 2020, about $5 billion was already spent. At the same time, applications have surged, with more than 1,000 new people ruled eligible just since the start of this year.

eople waiting for award determinations dated after Feb. 25 knew they were facing the cuts, but most didn’t anticipate how deep.

“I kinda laugh, and like, really? This is crazy,” Albanese said.

According to data obtained by the News, 534 reduced awards have gone out through the end of April.

A spokesperson for the VCF pointed to the law’s regulations as the reason cuts are shockingly deep. They say that after awards are determined, the fund must subtract any other benefits people got for the same ailments, such as disability payments or life insurance. But the new 50% cut is not applied to the money that is left after those offsets. It is applied to the original award. If the offsets are more than half, the 50% cut wipes out the entire award.

For Albanese, the slow, painstaking process left her with nothing, while other widows got substantial payments because their husbands died sooner. Similarly, time is proving an enemy to firefighters who perhaps tried to stay on the job they love longer than they should have.

“I just came from the doctor today, and he said ‘You’re sicker than you think you are,'” said John McLean, who had to retire from the FDNY because of breathing and other problems. “I really didn’t want to do that, because I was a fireman.”

A person with McLean’s problems should be eligible for a little more than $1 million. After subtracting the various other offsetting benefits he got, his check would be around $545,000, according to his lawyer. But after the cuts, he is being paid $7,000 — vastly less than others.

“I’m winding up with nothing compared to what they got. Same illnesses, so it sounds like it’s a little unjust,” McLean said.

Ken Ahlers also probably stayed on the job too long. His last fire was a blaze in South Jamaica in the fall of 2017.

“My lungs just shut down, and I knew I had to go,” he said. “I was putting my life at risk, but more importantly, the guys who I was working with, I was putting their lives at risk.”

He figured between a decent disability pension and the six-figure payments the VCF was making to other firefighters facing similar shortfalls, he’d still get the money he dreamed of putting aside for his three nearly grown children.

“If you really look towards the future with your kids growing up, looking to help them with their first house, looking to help them with their marriages, or having their first children — that’s where this money comes into play,” Ahlers said. “Because you’re giving them the security in case you’re not there.”

Lawmakers in Congress have proposed legislation to extend the compensation fund. The bill has significant support in the House and Senate, but has yet to advance to hearings.

“These heartbreaking stories are why I, and Reps. [Jerry] Nadler and [Peter] King, introduced the Never Forget the Heroes Act back in February,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead sponsor. “This bill would keep our country’s promise to the 9/11 survivors and responders who are still suffering today by fully funding the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and Congress needs to pass it as quickly as possible.”

The pace of responders getting sick and dying has steadily increased as the toxins and particles from Ground Zero do their inevitable damage, spawning cancers and wrecking lungs. More police officers have died from 9/11-linked illness since the attacks than died on that day.

Albanese fears for other widows and families whose loved ones managed to hold on just long enough for help to expire.

“I’m wondering now, what’s going to happen to all the people that passed after my husband, all the wives and families left behind?” She said. “What’s going to happen with them? I really was thinking about that. Oh my God. All these women, all these families.”