NYPD commissioner urges Congress to help officers, first responders still dying from 9/11: OPINION

On Friday, the NYPD celebrates Peace Officers Memorial Day.

Remarkably, all 47 of those lost are casualties of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that shocked the world.

The NYPD lost 23 members in the attack itself. We have since lost more than 200 to 9/11-related diseases. More than 500 of our NYPD members have contracted 9/11-related cancers. Others have asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease and other debilitating and life-threatening ailments.

The first 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) completed its work in 2004, having awarded $7 billion in compensation to 2,880 claimants, mostly those who died or were injured in the attack.

By 2010, the number of 9/11-related illnesses and deaths was mounting among response and recovery workers, and others who lived and worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center. The nation, and Congress in particular, recognized the need to revive the fund to assist and compensate the brave and dedicated people who were exposed to a toxic stew of chemicals, asbestos, pulverized cement and other hazards as they toiled day after day at the smoldering World Trade Center site -- and later at the Fresh Kills landfill -- in the long aftermath of the attack.

The James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which was named for a New York City police officer, provided much needed assistance and compensation for the next five years, but had to be reauthorized for additional five years in December 2015. The number of legitimate claims continued to rise.

Now, in 2019, the fund is stressed again. Having paid out $5 billion in awards to 21,000 claimants, it has shrunk to just over $2.37 billion and still faces nearly 17,000 claims that have yet to be decided -- and an unknown number of claims that have yet to be filed. The diseases caused by exposure in 2001 can take years to develop and even longer to be diagnosed.

The special master of the Victims Compensation Fund has reported that the remaining funds are insufficient to meet pending and projected future claims, from both recovery workers and others who lived and worked near the Twin Towers site. An additional 10,000 claims were made in 2018, and death claims last year exceeded the entire total for the prior seven years, as disease took its toll.

Shockingly, in the special master’s judgment, awards must be greatly reduced or denied -- unless something is done.

The time has come to recognize that we cannot place a financial cap or temporal limit on this slow-moving human crisis. We must recognize that our estimates of the damage done were too low in both 2010 and 2015, and that the current plan to close out the fund by December 2020 is unrealistic.

As New York City police commissioner, I encounter old friends and acquaintances and other members of my department who are 9/11 casualties at various department events. They are battling lung cancer, leukemia, brain cancer, skin cancer, lymphoma and 15 other varieties of cancer, among other diseases. It is painful to see formerly robust police officers and civilians ravaged and weakened by their ailments. How much more painful would it be if we stopped supporting them and honoring their sacrifice?

We cannot desert the remaining claimants. As the nation prepares to recognize Peace Officers Memorial Day, Congress must establish an open-ended plan to support and honor the victims of the 9/11 attack -- for as long it takes and as much as it costs.

Because, tragically, we know that the names of fallen cops from 9/11 that we will add to our Police Memorial wall on Friday, won’t be our last.

James P. O'Neill is the commissioner of the New York City Police Department.