By Serena Solomon and Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — More than 4,500 people who got sick after inhaling toxic dust on 9/11 have registered for compensation through a new $2.8 billion federal fund.
In the five-and-a-half months since the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund opened for registration, 4,563 people have signed up, including more than 2,600 first responders and 542 cleaning and maintenance workers, said Sheila Birnbaum, the fund's special master. Other enrollees include construction workers and Downtown residents and students.
"We're up and running," Birnbaum told residents at a Community Board 1 meeting this week.
Under the Zadroga Act, the Victim Compensation Fund covers medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering for those who were hurt on 9/11 or came down with illnesses afterward that are connected to the attack. The fund covers respiratory and digestive illnesses, and the federal government is currently weighing whether it should cover some cancers.
Once first responders and others register for the fund online, the next step is to fill out eligibility paperwork proving that they have an illness or injury related to 9/11.
So far, 912 people have begun filling out that eligibility paperwork, and 191 of them have submitted it, Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum expects thousands more eligibility applications to pour in over the next couple of months, because many of the lawyers representing sick first responders have not yet submitted their clients' paperwork, she said.
The federal government has already begun reviewing the eligibility claims and will notify applicants "soon" if they have been approved, Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum's office has also already received tips that some of the people who are applying were not actually at the World Trade Center site, allegations Birnbaum said she is taking seriously.
"If there is any truth to the claims, they will be forwarded to the Department of Justice for investigation," Birnbaum said. "We want to make sure the people getting the funds...are people who were truly there and are deserving."
Once applicants are deemed eligible, they can then file their last round of paperwork, demonstrating their costs and losses and requesting compensation.
The fund could begin making payouts as early as this year, but the majority of the funds will not be available until the fund closes in 2016.
Those who are already sick have until October 2013 to file their claim, while those who get sick later will have two years from the date of their diagnosis to submit their paperwork.
Local law schools and legal organizations have already hosted several free legal clinics to help people fill out applications, and Birnbaum hopes to announce additional clinic dates soon.
Anyone with questions can call the Victim Compensation Fund helpline at 1-855-885-1555.