The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, May 08, 2002

DOE's worker proposal attacked
The rules run counter to Congress' intent in helping sick workers get compensation, Rep. Ed Whitfield says.

By Joe Walker

The Department of Energy "appears to have misinterpreted the intent of Congress" in draft regulations to help sick nuclear employees and their families get workers' compensation benefits, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield says.

In a letter to be sent today to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said the draft "fails to meet" the law's intent to ensure that people exposed to workplace toxins are compensated by DOE contractors "without a legal battle."

Legislation passed in 2000 provides $150,000 and medical benefits through the Department of Labor to uranium-enrichment workers with chronic beryllium disease, silicosis and certain radiation-induced cancers. Those sickened from other workplace toxins can seek state workers' compensation benefits by providing medical evidence to DOE, which decides whether a claim should be reviewed by a special physicians' panel. If the panel approves the claim, the department will not oppose it and will direct its contractors to do likewise.

Whitfield's letter, expected to be signed by other lawmakers, complains that the draft rule:

Allows contractors to contest findings by the doctors' panel. "This process is not authorized in (the law) and turns the whole principle of contractors not contesting merited workers' compensation claims on its head."

Allows contractors to be reimbursed for legal costs of contesting all issues except the cause of an illness. "Contractors will have an incentive to fight merited claims based on procedural barriers within state compensation systems that prevent workers from receiving benefits."

Requires the panel to apply "widely different standards" for cause of an illness, depending on the state where someone worked. A "uniform and equitable federal standard" of causation is needed.

Does not compel contractors to hold private insurers, state plans and predecessor contractors harmless if they pay claims, and provides no means of compensation if a contractor does not exist. That means claimants could be approved by the panel "and have no way to get paid."

Requires workers or survivors to submit medical evidence of exposure-related disease, but does not say how DOE must provide "meaningful assistance" in getting the information from a doctor of choice.

Energy Department spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett told The Associated Press that the agency would not comment on the rule until it was finalized, likely in a few weeks.

However, in publishing the rule, DOE said the appeal process was broadened to include both the claimant and contractor "for the sake of fairness and due process." The department said it believes "it is encouraging contractors' compliance" by allowing them to be reimbursed for accepting a claim.

As for varying state standards, the evidence should focus on whether an applicant "provides reasonable evidence of an illness or death," DOE said, and the law was not intended to "create federal standards that would override" those of the states.

DOE said it must help an applicant obtain a medical history it if is not "reasonably available," and the law requires the department and its contractors to provide exposure records. If applicants are required to travel for panel interviews, which should be infrequent, travel costs are expected to be paid by DOE.

In writing Abraham, Whitfield said the Energy Department still has not responded to a March 27 letter from him and eight other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asking 22 detailed questions about the regulations.

Today's letter said that unless improvements are made, the regulations will provide little help to workers or their survivors beyond seeking workers' compensation benefits on their own.