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Sheila Birnbaum: Sept. 11 Compensation Fund May Cover Cancer

Sept 11 Zadroga

First Posted: 06/21/11 08:53 PM ET Updated: 08/21/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The new czar of the Sept. 11 Victims' Compensation Fund is offering hope to 9/11 responders who are dying from cancer as their fatal diseases may finally be covered under the law meant to aide sickened heroes.

Cancer was never covered under Sept. 11 legislation because it is so difficult to prove causes of such a complex ailment. But, with the release Tuesday of draft regulations on how the $2.8 billion fund will work, the fund's special master, Sheila Birnbaum, said she will work aggressively for the next several months to determine whether cancers should be included -- and which ones.

"One of the hardest issues here is what cancers could be scientifically related to the exposures the people had," Birnbaum told the Huffington Post, suggesting she would weigh the evidence more like a doctor than a judge.

"We're going to look at and consider the scientific evidence very carefully, and apply not a legal standard -- because this is not a court of law and we don't think we should be applying a legal standard that the courts would accept for causation -- but a reasonable medical and scientific standard based on the best evidence available," she said.

Estimates of people who have died of cancer after toiling in the toxins of Ground Zero are hard to come by, but they are likely in the hundreds, since around 1,000 9/11 responders have died in the years since helping in rescue and clean-up efforts.

None of those people or their families would be eligible for compensation under the original 9/11 victims' fund. If Birnbaum determines the specific cancers are likely the causes of death, it would mean lifelines for families that have lost mothers or fathers.

Both the speed with which Birnbaum put out the draft rules -- just over a month -- and the focus on cancer were welcomed by one of the leaders of the 9/11 community, John Feal, head of the FealGood Foundation.

"This woman needs to get this up and running quick, but I do give her credit for getting this part out in, what, 35 days," said Feal. "But the big thing for me is cancer, and what we do about that."

Birnbaum said she would pour over the reports that have been written on the subject, interview people, and meet with the various doctors providing treatment through the Fire Department and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, which runs the treatment program for responders.

"Most of this is going to be based on a lot of statistical work, I guess, and what the medical personnel have found," she said.

Cancer won't be the only difficult issue that Birnbaum faces. there are also a lot of misunderstanding about what the law -- called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act -- actually does.

For instance, people suffering mental ailments are not eligible for compensation, she said. And the payouts for people who are eligible will not come at once. Of the $2.8 billion available, only $875 million can be spent in the next five years. The rest will be doled out in the sixth year.

And that money -- unlike the original fund that was essentially a blank check -- is capped, and it must also pay for administration costs -- also unlike the original fund, where those were funded separately.

That means that responders who want to start out with a hearing on their ailments will not get one immediately--they will have to wait and see if they disagree with their award. That's because hearings cost more money, and Birnbaum's draft regulations say she aims to save some there.

The process may also end up feeling cold because the special master said she wants to preserve the cash for payouts. "Some of the things we'd all like to do -- the personalized touches -- are not going to be able to be done because it was just going to eat up the fund amount," she explained.

But one other bit of hope she was able to offer is to people who were covered the first compensation effort. Many had expected to get excluded, but Birnbaum said they if had new conditions -- or their problems had worsened considerably -- they could apply.

And people whose problems are not on the list of covered diseases might eventually find they are covered as the scientific advisory panel created by the Zadroga law weighs new evidence.

The first 9/11 special master, Ken Feinberg, has told the Huffington Post that Birnbaum's job will be tougher because the of the limited resources and complexity of the cases.

She did not disagree.

"I find this the most challenging thing I've ever done," she said.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act is supposed to go into effect in July, but comments are being sought on the compensation fund rules until Aug. 5.

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