In four months, the government is supposed to start taking applications for sick nuclear workers eligible for special federal compensation.
Congress gave the Department of Labor (DOL) $60.4 million to start the program.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, however, has asked that the program be placed under the Department of Justice (DOJ) rather than DOL.
That concerns lawmakers like Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who is worried that his constituents with incurable illnesses will have to wait too long for compensation.
"These workers have waited long enough. Any further delay is intolerable and unacceptable," said Strickland. "The DOL has the experience and the nationwide infrastructure necessary to quickly provide benefits to sick workers facing thousands of dollars in medical bills. The longer these workers have to waits, the less likely compensation will prove to be of any benefit at all."
Strickland as well as eight other members of Congress, sent a letter to the White House asking that DOL keep the program after Chao sent a letter to President Bush asking that DOJ be put in charge of the program.
Chao noted that DOJ already handles a small program that gives one-time payment to uranium miners, millers and people who lived downwind of nuclear test sites.
"To create a new infrastructure when DOJ already has the tools to effectively implement and administer this program is duplicative," wrote Chao.
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) was signed into law last year after the Department of Energy accepted responsibility for exposing millions of workers to radioactive material during the Cold War.
Many workers have been diagnosed with illness, such as specific types of cancer, that have been linked to their exposure.
"DOL was selected to run this program because it has administered a number of other federal worker compensation programs for as long as 90 years," said Strickland. These programs include the Coal Miners Black Lung Disease Act and the Federal Employee Compensation Act.
The letter, circulated by Strickland and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., was signed by Republicans Jim Gibbons of Nevada and Zack Wamp of Tennessee, and Democrats Mark Udall of Colorado, John LaFalce of New York, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.
"These workers sacrificed their health in service to their country," said Strickland. "Every year, thousands of former workers die from exposure related illness. This administrative change could result in many months of delay in getting necessary compensation to these workers. The administration should move forward quickly with its responsibilities."
by Virginia Sutcliffe