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Justice Department to make $40 million available for victims of deadly meningitis outbreak

Vials of the injectable steroid product made by New England Compounding Center, which is implicated in a fungal meningitis outbreak. (Minnesota Department of Health via AP)
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The Justice Department plans to make as much as $40 million available for victims of a 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak that federal investigators traced to a batch of contaminated steroid injections  after a dispute over whether those affected by the outbreak qualified for such financial assistance was finally resolved, officials said.

While some of the details still need to be worked out, the Office for Victims of Crime has decided to make the money available from its Crime Victims Fund, which is financed by fines and penalties paid by those convicted of crimes, the officials said. That itself is a significant — as there had been some dispute about the victims’ eligibility — though the money is not yet in victims’ or their family members’ hands.

“It’s been nearly four long years for these victims and their families, and now we’re finally getting some positive news,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.), who was among those pressuring the federal government to act. “While no one can undo the pain and suffering they have endured, we can stand up, fight, and demand action.”

Why victims of deadly meningitis outbreak haven’t been compensated

According to Justice Department officials, more than 770 people got a fungal infection after receiving injections from the New England Compounding Center, and 76 people died — making it the deadliest meningitis outbreak in U.S. history. In 2014, federal prosecutors charged 14 people in a 131-count indictment, alleging employees at the center knew they were producing medication in an unsafe and unsanitary way and shipping it to customers anyway. Owner and head pharmacist Barry J. Cadden and supervisory pharmacist Glenn A. Chin were charged with 25 acts of second-degree murder and are scheduled to go on trial later this year.

While most agreed those affected deserved compensation, the mechanics of making money available proved difficult. A civil fund was created, but payments were stalled by negotiations with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over what portion that agency, which paid some of the medical bills, should receive. Separately, prosecutors pushed to make federal victim-assistance money available, though some in the Justice Department felt there could be legal issues with awarding the cash because the injuries sustained by the victims were not the result of an “intentional violent criminal act.”

Justice Department officials now say $40 million is being made available, and they will work with the Massachusetts authorities on a grant award so that those affected across the country might receive funds. Massachusetts is where the New England Compounding Center and where the criminal case was brought. Under state law, victims are eligible to receive a maximum of $50,000 if they suffered “catastrophic injuries,” officials said.

Kathy Pugh, whose 85-year-old mother, Evelyn Bates-March, was among those sickened and who now needs her daughter’s help to get out of bed, dress and shower, called the Justice Department’s decision “great news,” though she questioned how soon funds would actually come.

“I still don’t see the victims receiving any money from anyone this year,” she said. “Hopefully I’m wrong.”