U.S. House lawmakers who represent sick nuclear weapons workers said Thursday the federal government should step up its efforts to compensate the workers.
“You sense the urgency from all the claimants,” Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said of the workers and their families. Many of the workers, or their surviving spouses, are elderly.
“These nuclear weapons workers served America well, and honor demands that they be well served in return,” said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
The Udalls, who are cousins, joined Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee on the compensation program.
Wamp, whose district includes facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said he has received complaints about the length of time it takes for claims to be processed. He also said some claimants have had trouble getting information from the agencies involved.
“Our nation’s nuclear workers and their families deserve fair and timely compensation for work-related illnesses,” Wamp said.
The hearing was the second in a series examining the compensation program, which was created by Congress in 2000. Workers exposed to cancer-causing radiation or beryllium and silica — which cause lung diseases — get a lump sum payment of $150,000 plus medical benefits.
The Labor Department estimates it has paid out more than $1 billion in straight compensation, not including medical payments, under the program. Most of the workers were at Energy Department facilities in Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.
Wamp defended Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the government contractor helping to administer the program. Critics say the Tennessee-based company has failed to police conflicts of interest among its staff.
For example, some contractor employees who are writing reports about the nuclear facilities were responsible for monitoring radiation there over the years. Some also served as expert witnesses for the government during the period in which the government fought compensation claims.
Wamp said the contractor has a good track record, but that he welcomed a congressional investigation into its performance. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Indiana, who chaired the hearing and has jurisdiction over government claims, ordered the investigation.
Hostettler decided to hold hearings after an internal White House budget document was publicized that discussed limiting the program’s costs, including calling for administration clearance of benefits decisions.
Hostettler said Bush administration officials and claimants would be asked to testify at an upcoming, not-yet-scheduled hearing. Hostettler said he has been in talks with Bush administration officials and has “heard more on the reassuring side” lately.
Still, the administration’s memo remains a sore spot with lawmakers.
“This amounts to injecting a political budgetary element into independent science and fact-based decisions on the payment of workers’ claims,” Hastings said.
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