By DEVLIN BARRETT
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 9:40 PM
WASHINGTON -- The mayor of New York City asked Congress on Wednesday to reopen the government fund for victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks _ and spare his city the prospect of losing billions of dollars in related lawsuits.
The fund closed in December 2003, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a Senate panel that federal help is needed for those sickened years after the attacks.
"The mere fact that their injuries and illnesses have been slower to emerge should not disqualify them from getting the help that they need," Bloomberg said.
Congress created the $7 billion September 11th Victim Compensation Fund soon after the attacks, and it immediately became the subject of intense debate among victims' family members and politicians for the rules by which it distributed money.
Bloomberg appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where Democrats have pledged to do more for sick ground zero workers than the Republican-controlled Congress did in past years.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long sought more federal aid for ground zero workers, said after the hearing that she is considering, but not committed to, reopening the fund.
The New York Democrat, who is also running for president, said Congress had no answers yet on exactly how such a fund would work or how much it would cost.
"We're looking at all of this," she said. "Our goal is to try to get help to as many people as possible."
The original federal aid package created a $1 billion insurance fund to cover injury claims by city workers and construction workers at the World Trade Center site, which was caked in toxic dust and debris that took months to clean up. The mayor offered Wednesday to give that money back to the government to help create a new fund for victims with long-term health problems.
The city estimates there are more than 8,000 legal claims stemming from ground zero. Marc Jay Bern, a lawyer representing many of those workers, said the figure is closer to 10,000.
Excluding administrative costs and legal fees, that $1 billion fund would average out to about $100,000 per person.
The law that created the insurance fund also capped the city's liability at $350 million, but Bloomberg said Wednesday he doubted whether that limit would hold up in court _ potentially leaving his city on the hook for future billions.
Congress has shown little enthusiasm for suggestions it reopen the unprecedented government compensation program for Sept. 11 victims.
The fund paid out an average award of $2.1 million to the families of those killed, though the 2,880 individual payouts ranged from $250,000 to $7.1 million.
In addition, the fund paid an average of $400,000 for the 2,680 accepted claims of injuries stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks. The smallest injury award was $500, the largest $8.6 million.
Clinton has offered legislation that would spend $1.9 billion for health care treatment for a five-year period. The mayor, who backs the proposal, said the cost of treating the sick or those who could become sick from exposure to World Trade Center debris is $393 million a year.
New York City officials say some 400,000 were exposed to ground zero dust, and 71,000 have enrolled in a long-term health monitoring program for people with and without health problems. Most experts believe there are thousands of people still sick years after ground zero exposure.