Congress Debates Reforms to Nuclear WC Program

October 6, 2004

Congressional lawmakers agree a program to compensate sick nuclear weapons workers is broken, but how to fix it is the subject of debate on Capitol Hill.

The program is for tens of thousands of people nationwide who helped build Cold-War era bombs or cleaned up the waste left behind. Many got sick from harsh toxins and are seeking lost wages for time spent off the job.

In Ohio, the program was designed to help workers from 35 sites, including the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon and the Mound site in Miamisburg.

Others worked at facilities in Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and the state of Washington.

Legislation passed by the Senate would move the program from the Energy Department to the Labor Department, which is said to be doing a good job handling a separate compensation program for nuclear workers. In contrast, the program run by the Energy Department has been bogged down by delays.

The Energy Department is supposed to help workers file for assistance under state worker compensation systems. Federal contractors pay the claims and get reimbursed.

The Senate proposal would require the government — not the contractors — to pay the bills. In some cases, contractors are long gone. In other instances, the government can’t compel contractors to pay the claims, because they are privately insured.

The Senate proposal is included in a larger defense bill. The House defense bill does not include such a measure, and lawmakers from both chambers are trying to negotiate a compromise.

Some lawmakers who represent the workers say a proposal put forward by the House negotiators doesn’t go far enough.

“The House plan I have seen is a far cry from the sound plan the Senate passed,” said Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield, who represents workers at a uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Ky.

House negotiators agree the Energy Department program should be moved to the Labor Department. However, they disagree with House and Senate members who represent the sick workers over the level of benefits the workers should get.

The proposal in the Senate bill would require the Labor Department to use individual state worker compensation laws when determining how much employees should get.

House members believe such a system is too complicated. They say a better approach is to offer various lump sum benefits which varydepending on how sick a person is.

House and Senate lawmakers who represent the workers say that approach fails to give workers something equivalent to what they have lost.

The compensation program run by the Labor Department program is entirely different from the Energy program. It pays workers a lump sum of $150,000 only if they got cancer due to radiation or lung diseases associated with beryllium or silica.

Workers are now allowed to apply for benefits under both compensation programs, and many of them do that.

Lawmakers who represent the workers say that’s only fair since the lump sum is an apology for putting workers in harm’s way, while the other program is supposed to replace lost wages.

A House proposal would limit the degree to which workers could apply for assistance under both programs.

“It just seems like we are once again trying to sock it to the worker, while pretending to reform a program,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

A call to the House Armed Services Committee seeking comment on the negotiations was not immediately returned.

The government previously kept quiet about the toxins the workers were exposed to at the nuclear sites. Four years ago, after the Clinton administration apologized to the workers, Congress passed the dual compensation programs.

House and Senate negotiators are trying to work out their differences so they can produce a compromise defense bill before Congress adjourns next week for a lengthy recess.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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