House Hearing: Is Government Too Slow to Help Sick Workers?

After years of denial and litigation, in 2000 Congress passed a law intended to compensate thousands of workers who grew ill or died by working in U.S. nuclear weapons plants. Three years later, most workers who have applied for benefits are still waiting.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) charged the Dept. of Energy (DOE) and the Dept. of Labor (DOL) with administering two very different compensation programs. On Oct. 30, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, held a hearing to examine how well DOL is doing with its piece of the project.

So far, more than 36,000 workers have filed almost 48,000 claims with DOL for cancer caused by radiation, beryllium disease and silicosis. What has aroused the interest of lawmakers, and the wrath of their constituents, is that more than 14,000 of these claims are now pending "dose reconstruction" from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Some, but not all claims, require dose reconstruction a separate step in the process to determine causation of the illness.

"So far NIOSH has forwarded completed dose reconstruction to DOL for only 700 claims," asserted Donald Elisburg, a witness who spoke on behalf of the AFL-CIO.

John Howard, NIOSH's director, explained the challenges the institute faced in complying with the demands of the law.

"While NIOSH has some of the leading expertise in conducting dose reconstruction for scientific purposes, the practical challenges of conducting dose reconstruction in a 'production mode' for a compensation program are new to us," he said.

For example, NIOSH had to complete site profiles for every DOE plant, recruit and train a dispersed workforce of experts, and establish operational procedures. Further, DOE has often been unable to provide all the relevant records NIOSH needs to conduct dose reconstructions.

"At this point, we steadily are increasing our capacity to complete dose reconstruction," Howard said. "We expect much greater increases ahead in the number of dose reconstructions completed monthly." But Howard did not make specific promises about how quickly the institute could cut the backlog of cases.

Elisburg countered that NIOSH should streamline its process for evaluating claims "so workers and their survivors can be compensated in a timely manner as Congress intended."

Not all cases handled by DOL require NIOSH dose reconstruction, and Shelby Hallmark, director of the office of workers' compensation programs, defended the department's performance on these claims. "DOL has issued final decisions in over 19,000 cases and awarded almost $700 million compensation plus medical benefits," said Hallmark. The typical DOL compensation payment is $150,000, and medical benefits are paid on top of that. The average amount of time it takes DOL to process cases not referred to NIOSH ranges from 80 to 120 days.

Another issue raised at the hearing is the relatively small number of workers who have filed claims. It is estimated that 700,000 workers worked at U.S. nuclear facilities during the period covered by EEOICPA, and while Hallmark said DOL is doing its utmost to publicize the program, Rep. Major Owens, D-NY, pressed him to do more.

Not discussed at the hearing, because Norwood's committee lacks jurisdiction, is the far more troubled compensation program DOE administers. DOE says it has completed work on only 81 claims of the 20,276 it has received and has an estimated case backlog of five years.

It is not clear what steps, if any, Norwood may be contemplating to address the NIOSH dose reconstruction backlog issue. In his concluding remarks he acknowledged that while sick workers need timely compensation, taxpayers would be outraged if money were given away to those who do not deserve it.

"This is a very difficult situation," he told the government witnesses. "If you start paying out millions to people who have not been injured, we'll hear about that you're 'durned' if you do and 'durned' if you don't."

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