The death this month of yet another FBI employee who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and a looming deadline for 9/11 responders to sign up for health benefits is leading to renewed efforts inside the Bureau to make sure everyone who worked the expansive crime scenes in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania is plugged into the health resources available to them.
William “Homer” Lewis, an engineer and electronics technician at the FBI Academy, died April 3 after battling an illness attributed to his work at the Pentagon in the days and weeks after terrorists crashed an aircraft into the side of the building. Lewis, who joined the FBI in 1990, brings to at least 16 the number of FBI agents and professionals who have died from illnesses they incurred through work at or near the recovery and screening sites in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“Our folks responded without concerns for themselves,” FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said during a recent event at FBI Headquarters—and broadcast to all 56 field offices—aimed at spreading awareness about the need for 9/11 responders to register for available health care resources before it’s too late.
“If you hear nothing else I have to say, please register today,” Bowdich said. “We’ve lost too many good people, and I feel we are going to lose more.”
The federal government has several programs for affected 9/11 responders, including the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The WTCHP, which authorizes coverage through 2090, provides ongoing screening, monitoring, and treatment for certified conditions, and the VCF provides compensation to individuals—or their families if deceased—for certain injuries or conditions or deaths related to the 9/11 attacks.
The renewed urgency within the Bureau’s ranks is due in part by a looming statutory deadline to submit claims for the Victim Compensation Fund—December 18, 2020. The urgency was compounded earlier this year when the special master in charge of the $7.3 billion compensation fund announced that future payouts would be significantly reduced (by up to 70 percent) because of dwindling funds. More than $5.1 billion has already been awarded to more than 21,000 claimants as of March 31, 2019, with thousands more claims still pending review.
“I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation,” VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya wrote in a February 15, 2019 message posted on the VCF website. “I also deeply regret that I could not honor my intention to spare any claim submitted prior to this announcement from any reductions made due to a determination of funding insufficiency. But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice.”
With at least three deaths last year of FBI special agents whose illnesses were directly related to their work at 9/11 sites and more than 40 FBI employees currently being treated for 9/11-related illnesses, a concerted effort is underway to get all 9/11 responders—working and retired—to register for the programs even if they are not showing any signs of illness.