By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Sheila Birnbaum has a simple message for the thousands of 9/11 responders who are still sick nearly 10 years after the attacks: Help is on the way.
At a town hall meeting Wednesday night, Birnbaum, the "special master" overseeing a new $2.8 billion Victim Compensation Fund, told more than 300 downtown recovery workers and residents that she would distribute the money as swiftly and equitably as possible.
"I can't promise you that you'll be satisfied with the awards you get," Birnbaum said from the stage of a lower Manhattan auditorium. "But I can promise that you'll be heard, that we'll be fair. I can promise that we'll be transparent."
But Birnbaum, a legal expert and lifelong New Yorker, also acknowledged that she faces many challenges and will be forced to make decisions that will make some people unhappy.
The chief complaint is that the fund does not currently cover any cancers. Birnbaum said a team of scientists would review the research to see if they could justify adding new illnesses.
The fund also does not cover psychological illnesses, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and since that rule is written into the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act itself, Birnbaum said her hands are tied.
Birnbaum was more flexible on her recently announced decision to only compensate people who were south of Reade Street on 9/11 and in the days that followed.
Many residents who lived just north of Reade Street said their homes, too, were deluged with toxic dust and smoke.
"[The Reade Street boundary] is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Brian Lutz, 64, a TriBeCa resident who was one block north of Reade Street on 9/11 and now suffers from frequent respiratory illnesses. "I've been sick for 10 years."
Birnbaum promised to meet with residents to discuss the Reade Street line, and she said that even if it remains in place, she would still consider their claims on a case-by-case basis.
While Birnbaum will begin accepting applications for compensation on Oct. 1, the bulk of the money will not be available until 2016, because of the way Congress chose to allocate the funding.
Those who apply will receive some money shortly after Birnbaum evaluates their claim, but they won't receive their final award for five years, and even then, it may be pro-rated if Birnbaum receives more legitimate claims than the fund can satisfy, she said.
Although many people who spoke at the town hall were upset about the lack of treatment or compensation they have received so far, Birnbaum's straight talk drew praise from the crowd.
The group applauded her when she told them she was working pro-bono to ensure that more money went into their pockets, and again when she told them she would simplify the application process and make sure the forms are in "plain English."
A 41-year-old firefighter, who has asthma and other illnesses after doing 68 days of recovery work at Ground Zero, said he was surprised by how forthcoming Birnbaum was.
"When I first got there, I thought it was going to be like a professor talking to 2-year-olds," said the firefighter, who declined to give his name.
"But I got the impression that even though the room was full of people, she was actually just talking to me. She has her heart and soul in the right place and she's doing the best she can."
For more information about the Victim Compensation Fund, visit the Justice Department's website.