Senators vow action on aid program for nuke workers

Rocky Mountain News –

Senators vow action on aid program for nuke workers

By Laura Frank, Rocky Mountain News
October 24, 2007
WASHINGTON – Members of a power-packed U.S. Senate committee said Tuesday that they would find ways to reform the federal program to compensate ill nuclear weapons workers, including those from Rocky Flats.

A leading national advocate for the workers, Terrie Barrie, of Craig, said she was encouraged by the hearing, the first in a series to be held before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“The senators were really on top of the problems,” Barrie said. “I don’t think they were just giving lip service.”

Allard leans on official

Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard was one of the toughest questioners during the hearing. He took John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health, to task when Howard suggested that he didn’t know what changes might be needed in the law governing the compensation program. NIOSH helps run the program.

With Allard’s prodding, Howard touched on what could become the centerpiece of potential reform: setting deadlines for the government to reach conclusions on which workers deserve compensation.

Ill nuclear workers from Rocky Flats and other U.S. weapons production and testing sites wait an average of three years for the government to determine whether contamination likely caused their diseases and whether they should be compensated. One in 10 Rocky Flats workers whose cases eventually qualified for compensation died before their cases were completed, the Rocky Mountain News reported earlier this year.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program gives $150,000, medical coverage and lost wages to ill workers or their survivors if they can prove a link between the ailments and exposures.

Colorado cases cited

The plight of Rocky Flats workers came up several times as an example of how the program is broken. Rocky Flats workers applied in February 2005 for streamlined compensation, which is available when records are missing or too incomplete to use in figuring out how big a dose of radiation a worker received.

Government scientists took more than 800 days to conclude in June that only a small portion of Rocky Flats workers deserved the streamlined status. The rest must go through the years-long process of proving their individual radiation doses.

“That seems to me like anything but a speedy process,” Allard said during the hearing.

Dr. James Melius, a member of a White House advisory board that monitors the program, suggested during the hearing that a deadline could be imposed. Compensation would be automatic for workers with certain illnesses if no decision is made on calculating does or granting streamlined status within a set time.

“They need incentive,” Melius said of the program’s overseers. “There’s no reason dose reconstruction should take more than a year to complete.”

Claimants frustrated

Shelby Hallmark, who oversees the program for the U.S. Department of Labor, defended it. Hallmark told lawmakers about two cases this month in which dying claimants were rushed their money just days before they died. But he did acknowledge that most claimants had to wait too long.

“In this arena, we haven’t been as successful as we would have liked,” he said, adding that he planned to increase staff from 525 full-time positions to nearly 600.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, also testified, criticizing the complexity and lack of quality control in the program he and other lawmakers created to help the ill workers.

“None of us intended the program to be this unforgiving,” Reid said.

During the hearing, Malcolm Nelson, one of the program’s ombudsmen, testified that claimants are fed up with the program. And Ken Silver, an environmental health professor at East Tennessee State University who has studied ill workers, said the government was overlooking key records that could help prove workers’ exposures.

He said several workers who helped push for the program seven years ago still had not been compensated, despite documented exposures, assistance from their congressional representatives and support from nationally known health experts.

Silver asked what has become of hundreds of claimants who did not have access to such help.

After the hearing, Barrie said she hoped the organization she helped found, the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups, could persuade Congress to take action on reforming the program soon.

“I’m pushing for something now,” she said. “After seeing (lawmakers) at the hearing, I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult.”

Seeking solutions

• Tuesday: Lawmakers pledged to find ways to improve the federal program to compensate ill nuclear weapons workers, including those from the now-demolished Rocky Flats plant northwest of Denver. Top suggestions included setting deadlines for decisions that can now drag on for years.

• Next: More hearings are expected. Meanwhile, Rocky Flats workers are trying to appeal a decision that denies automatic compensation for most of them who have or will develop radiation-related cancers.

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