WASHINGTON — The World Trade Center Health Program, a federal agency that oversees the 9/11 health care and compensation, is warning law firms that work with sick survivors and responders to follow the law themselves as the deadline to seek compensation goes into effect on July 29.
According to letters obtained by the Daily News, the health program warned seven firms including Barasch McGarry Ungaro & Cifuni; Napoli Shkolnik; Hansen & Rosasco; Advocates for Justice; Kreindler & Kreindler; Pitta & Baione, and Slater, Slater & Schulman that numerous applications for those eligible for health care and compensation appear to have been filed without proper authorization or knowledge by the client.
“The WTC health program has information indicating that an attorney or employee of your firm, rather than the applicant themselves, submitted an application to the program,” health program director John Howard wrote in each of seven letters, adding that the program “does not have record of any of the necessary [legal releases] being submitted at the time of the application.”
“If the WTC Health Program learns of any cases of suspected fraud in the future, I will have no option but to refer the matter to the HHS office of inspector general,” Howard added.
News of the letters comes as the July 29 deadline nears for filing claims to the 9/11 compensation fund run by the Department of justice.
It is unclear from the letters how often shoddy applications were coming in, and how often it was done wholly without the knowledge of applicants.
According to sources familiar with some of the violations, doctors became alarmed when patients who came to the program through law firm referrals didn’t know the details of their own applications, or said the details were wrong.
To date, there has been remarkably little fraud in the 9/11 health program or the related compensation program, one of the strongest selling points that advocates used in convincing Congress to make both programs permanent in 2015 and 2019.
Another selling point for lawmakers was the relatively low fees that lawyers collect compared to normal contingency fees — just 10% of any money awarded. In order for law firms to make more money, they either need more clients or sicker ones with larger compensation claims.
While the warnings to the lawyers make no reference to the looming compensation deadline, that could be another factor. Anyone who has a health problem that they believe is linked to exposure to the toxic air and dust from the destroyed World Trade Center has to apply by July 29, two years since the final compensation law was passed.
People who don’t know they are ill or who get sick in the future will still be able to apply, but people who are sick now — and their lawyers — have been facing a time crunch to be included.
Sources told The News that in a recent regular call between Justice Department officials and a broader group of 9/11 law firms, the DOJ officials included representatives from the health program to repeat their concerns about fraud.
The News reached out to all the named firms and three responded: Advocates for Justice said its lawyers had never submitted documents that were not properly signed.
Jonathan Schulman, a partner for Slater, Slater & Schulman, acknowledged they had submitted two of the three required release forms due to conflicting information from the program; however, they are now submitting all the correct paperwork.
And finally, one of the firms called to try and sign up the News reporter for benefits.
One attorney familiar with the programs — who is not a recipient of any of the letters, was stunned by the details.
“My fellow lawyers should know the law. It’s not that hard,” the lawyer said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “It really boggles the mind that lawyers would do this. You just don’t sign someone else’s name to an application seeking federal benefits. It’s basic.”
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