Senators Say Program to Help Sick Workers Has Failed

A bi-partisan group of seven senators wants the Dept. of Labor (DOL) to take over a federal program established three years ago to compensate thousands of workers made ill by exposure to toxic materials at government weapons plants.

"The need for changing agencies is immediate and urgent," wrote the senators, blasting the Department of Energy (DOE) for having "failed to implement the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) in an efficient manner."

The Oct. 17 letter, sent to senators on the appropriations committee in support of a bill that would give EEOICP to DOL, points out that as of Oct. 10, DOE had sent only 81 claims, or less than .4 percent of the 20,276 received, through its physicians panels for a final determination of eligibility. The Government Accounting Office estimates that DOE will need seven years to work off the current backlog of cases.

"Workers made sick in the nation's weapons facilities simply don't have that kind of time to wait for assistance," wrote Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

But DOE officials defend their performance, two other senators, Democrats John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both of Louisiana, oppose the move, and it is not clear whether DOL is prepared to do a better job with the troubled program. Breaux and Landrieu voiced worries that transferring the program to DOL in mid-stream would only delay things further.

The senators who wish to take EEOICP away from DOE argue that DOL has expertise in claims processing and has processed more than 94 percent of the 35,832 cases filed under Subtitle B, a companion program of EEOICP that was assigned to DOL originally.

"The range of illnesses covered by Part D is far wider than that covered by DOL's Part B," countered a DOE spokesperson. Part D requires DOE to assist DOE contractors who developed illnesses due to work-related exposures to toxic substances, whereas Part B requires DOL to provide compensation benefits only to DOE atomic workers who developed work-related illnesses tied to radiation, beryllium, or silicosis.

The vast majority of DOL cases that have been resolved thus far have not required additional expert or medical review. In contrast, DOE has had to provide the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health with 11,000 dose profiles in order to determine the work-relatedness of the illnesses.

"Part D requires more records in order to establish that an illness is work-related," asserted the DOE spokesperson. In addition, DOE is responsible for obtaining medical records for both its own program as well as providing DOL with the records it needs for Part B.

Peter Turcic, director of the Energy Employees Occupations Illness Compensation Program at DOL, points out that his department pays out benefits directly to eligible applicants, while DOE only assists applicants to obtain benefits from state workers' compensation offices.

Asked if DOL had participated in drafting the amendment shifting EEOICP out of DOE in order to minimize transition delays, Turcic replied, "We are aware of the amendment and there have been discussions about it." But he declined to answer questions about whether DOL is prepared to take on the added burden of Part D, nor whether it could do the job more quickly than DOE.

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