LOWER MANHATTAN — First responders who got sick after inhaling the toxic air at Ground Zero after 9/11 have just one week left to decide whether to continue fighting their claims in court or drop their cases so that they can opt into the federal government's new $2.8 billion Victim Compensation Fund.
The decision is difficult because it is impossible for the firefighters, police officers and cleanup workers to know whether they would ultimately receive more money from a lawsuit or from the Victim Compensation Fund, according to John Feal, a 9/11 recovery worker who started the FealGood Foundation to advocate on behalf of sick and injured first responders.
The 9/11 responders also have no way of knowing whether they would get a payout sooner from a lawsuit or from the federal fund. While lawsuits can take years to wind their way through the courts, the federal government won't pay the bulk of the $2.8 billion in compensation money until 2016, to ensure that everyone who submits a claim gets a fair share.
"This is a big decision," Feal told DNAinfo Monday.
"This affects the rest of their lives," Feal said. "I put this decision right up there with 10 years ago, when they had to decide whether to go to Ground Zero."
More than 1,600 people currently have 9/11-health-related lawsuits pending and must make a decision by the Jan. 2 deadline, the Associated Press reported.
Retired NYPD Det. John Walcott told the Associated Press that he decided to drop his case last week, because he got tired of waiting on the courts.
"I've weighed my options and rolled the dice believing that the country I helped is not going to let me down," Walcott told the Associated Press.
The requirement that first responders drop ongoing lawsuits comes from the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which Congress passed last year. The requirement ensures that people will not be compensated twice for the same illness or injury.
Feal said he, like Walcott, believes the Victim Compensation Fund is the best bet for sick and injured first responders, because it will make payouts based on a fair, uniform standard.
The federal fund will compensate people for medical treatment, lost wages and pain and suffering in connection with a list of illnesses scientifically connected to the toxins at Ground Zero.
Cancer is not currently covered, but a medical panel is meeting regularly to weigh new research and decide whether to cover additional illnesses.