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Payments slow to come from 9/11 health fund

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DAVID B. CARUSO | November 22, 2013 11:08 AM EST | AP

NEW YORK (AP) — In its first two years of operation, the small group of lawyers handling a compensation program for people with health problems related to the Sept. 11 attacks has been bogged down in bureaucracy and has issued decisions to only 112 people, according to a report released Friday by the fund's chief administrator.

In the report, Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund special master Sheila Birnbaum revealed that only a trickle of money has gone out. Of the $2.78 billion appropriated by Congress, only $27.2 million has been awarded. Little of that cash has actually reached applicants.

Now the fund may face an even more daunting challenge: processing a deluge of 55,000 applications, many of which came in over the summer and early fall as people exposed to dust at the World Trade Center raced to beat an October deadline.

The slow pace has upset some advocates for the sick. It also raises questions about whether the fund has the resources it needs to handle the mountain of applications from police officers, firefighters, construction and cleanup workers, and other people who were caught in the dust cloud when the twin towers collapsed, or who worked on the burning debris pile.

Birnbaum recently boosted staff to relieve the bottleneck. The fund now employs 75 people, up from 31 a year ago.

In the report, she said the fund is working to streamline the review process. In addition to hiring more people, it has been refining the computerized system used to review and track claims. It has brought in physicians to help review medical claims.

Birnbaum said one big hurdle has been difficulty gathering required documents.

Applicants are required to submit paperwork showing that they were present at the World Trade Center site, or responded to the Pentagon or the field in western Pennsylvania where terrorists crashed a hijacked jet.

They also have to provide certain medical records, or alternatively enroll in a special treatment program for people sickened by the attacks, and get a doctor there to verify that their illness could be related to the attacks.

Finally, applicants also have to document any economic losses they suffered as a result of their illness, since that will form the basis of their compensation payment.

Of the many applicants, only around 2,500 have submitted complete eligibility forms, and only a few hundred have sent in all the documents required to issue a compensation decision the report said.