A vow unfulfilled for ill nuclear workers 5,600 awaiting money promised three years ago

Rocky Mountain News

A vow unfulfilled for ill nuclear workers
5,600 awaiting money promised three years ago

George Barrie inhaled and ingested plutonium.   April 27  2007

The government still hasn’t paid the money it promised 5,600 sick nuclear weapons workers up to three years ago, the Rocky Mountain News has learned.

The former employees received letters authorizing them for a program that pays for medical care, lost wages and permanent health impairment. But none has received the cash, which can reach $250,000 for total disability.

The Department of Labor didn’t discover the problem until late 2006. Officials said that more than half of the 5,600 eligible workers did not file the necessary paperwork, even though the department says it issued proper instructions.

But the Rocky found two workers who were given incorrect information.

It isn’t clear why the workers who followed procedures haven’t been paid, Labor Department officials said.

Congress created the compensation program in 2000 to help workers who sacrificed their health in the dangerous process of building nuclear weapons during the Cold War. To qualify, workers must prove that radiation or toxic chemicals caused their illnesses.

The program has been plagued with problems, from slow processing to missing radiation records. Ill workers, including thousands from the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, have been frustrated by long waits for badly needed money.

The Labor Department is contacting the 5,600 workers to re-explain the procedures for collecting under the program’s Part E, said Assistant Secretary of Labor Victoria Lipnic. A third, or about 1,900, have responded seeking information, she said.

So far, 887 have spoken with staffers about applying, Lipnic said. She said she did not know how many have filed.

Lipnic announced the unpaid claims on the department’s Web site, but she didn’t reveal that 5,600 workers were involved until questioned by a Rocky reporter. If workers have been waiting years for their money, “that is unacceptable,” she said.

“There’s no deliberate delay going on,” she said. “It’s my experience that everybody in this program has been imbued with the sense of urgency because of so many people who are elderly.”

A department spokesman said that normal processing time should be closer to three or four months.

The Department of Energy ran the compensation program from 2001 to late 2004, spending $95 million on paperwork and paying 31 workers. Congress transferred it to the Labor Department, which took over a backlog of 25,000 aid applications 2 1/2 years ago.

Former Rocky Flats worker George Barrie, who inhaled and ingested plutonium while working at Rocky Flats, has 30 ailments.

The Craig resident was approved for one illness in March 2004 but didn’t receive a medical insurance card for that ailment until December 2005. That’s when he was told he had to write a letter to claim compensation for his lost wages and impairment, even though he and his wife repeatedly have told claims administrators they wanted to apply.

Today, three years after his original approval, he has not been paid. In the meantime, he must do without needed medical care, said his wife, Terrie, an activist seeking reform of the program.

She said that officials are failing to act on a claim that he has gastritis while they decide her husband’s appeal of their denial on other ailments. In particular, the Barries are pushing a claim for kidney tubal disease, saying that tests prove he processed uranium through his kidneys.

James Turner won approval years ago for his claim for beryllium disease caused by his work at Rocky Flats, and he was given health care and compensation under another section of the program called Part B. But he didn’t apply for impairment and lost wages under Part E until March 2006. Thirteen months later, his Part E claim has been approved but not paid. Approval should have been automatic because he was a Rocky Flats worker already approved for Part B.

A Rocky Flats worker who died last year was approved for Part E medical care in September 2005. The letter approving his medical benefits said he could not get lost wages or impairment benefits until after a certain set of rules took effect. In fact, those rules had taken effect three months earlier.

He was never told that he needed to apply, according to his widow, who asked not to be named. Now, she is eligible for only half of the $250,000 that her husband might have received.

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