Senators Slam Delay in Nuclear Workers’ Compensation Payments

October 30, 2007

Majority Leader Harry Reid and other senators said this week that there are unacceptable delays in a government program to compensate Cold War-era nuclear workers who developed cancer from exposure to radiation.

Reid, D-Nev., told a Senate hearing that ill and dying workers from the Nevada Test Site are waiting years for the government to process their claims and give them the $150,000 checks and medical benefits they’re entitled to under the program created by Congress in 2001.

The workers were involved in nuclear weapons testing that happened at the site in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1992.

“They tell me their sacrifices are being ignored,” Reid told a hearing of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee.

“This program has the right intentions, but it is failing thousands of Americans who helped win the Cold War,” Reid said.

Other senators voiced similar concerns about workers at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Rocky Flats in Colorado, among other sites.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he was considering introducing legislation aimed at speeding the compensation process and ensuring that if an affected worker dies, his or her survivors would collect benefits that are due, something that doesn’t necessarily happen now.

The director of the Labor Department’s worker compensation programs, Shelby Hallmark, defended his efforts to administer the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Nationally, more than 64,000 workers have been paid more than $3.2 billion under the law, he said.

“I’m not satisfied with our current processing speed, but we will fix it,” he said.

Individual cases can take about three years to process. Before workers can qualify for compensation, the government must determine there is a 50 percent or greater chance that their cancer or other illness was caused by work-related exposure to radiation or other toxins.

The lengthy process of deciding whether someone’s illness is work-related is done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Workers complain it can be impossible to prove their cases because of lost records or other bureaucratic snafus.

In some instances, they say they were instructed to hide the amount of radiation they were getting by not wearing devices that recorded the radiation. The House Judiciary Committee also has released documents that suggest government officials have attempted to limit program claim costs.

Of the 15,000 workers that have gone through individual adjudications by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, only about 5,000 have had their cases accepted, while 10,000 have been denied.

Of 766 Nevada Test Site cases adjudicated, 129 have been accepted and 637 denied.

The only way to avoid individual adjudication is for employees to be classified as part of a “special exposure cohort.” Currently certain workers at 22 different sites qualify.

Workers potentially exposed to aboveground testing at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1963 have been classed in the special exposure cohort. But late last month the government recommended against a petition by people who worked at the Nevada Test Site from 1963 through 1992 to be given that special status.

Reid has tried to get special status for the group through legislation but hasn’t succeeded.

Alexander said he’s considering a bill that would automatically add workers to the special exposure cohort if it’s taking too long to work through their individual claims.

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