The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Thursday, August 08, 2002

Whitfield drafting bill to force insurers to pay workers' claims
DOE says it has no legal authority to force payment of claims.

By Joe Walker

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield is drafting a bill to force insurers to pay workers' compensation claims to people sickened from jobs at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and other nuclear facilities.

Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said the effort is designed to fill a big void in a federal law whose final Department of Energy regulations are expected to be released today.

"I'm pleased that the final rule issued by DOE to help workers who were exposed to toxic substances contains changes I recommended that are more favorable to the claimant," he said.

But DOE acknowledges it has no legal authority to force payment of claims once a physicians' panel determines workers are eligible for state benefits, so "my colleagues and I are working on separate legislation to address that shortcoming," Whitfield said.

Whitfield's staff obtained a final draft of the regulations Wednesday. He had written Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham in May saying DOE "appears to have misinterpreted the intent of Congress" in helping the workers. He also pointed out flaws in an earlier draft of the rules.

The letter said the rules did not ensure that people exposed to workplace toxins are compensated by DOE contractors "without a legal battle." The rules did not compel contractors to hold private insurers, state plans and predecessor contractors blameless if they pay claims, and the rules provided for no means of compensation if a contractor does not exist, Whitfield complained.

As a result, claimants could be approved by the panel "and have no way to get paid," his letter said.

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 may seek state workers’ compensation benefits by providing medical evidence to DOE, which decides whether a claim should be reviewed by the physicians’ panel.

Whitfield said the new version of the rules has these improvements:

  • The panel must apply a uniform federal standard of illness causation, rather than widely differing standards in various states.

  • If the panel approves a claim, DOE will not oppose it and will direct its contractors to do likewise.

  • The three-member panel will make determinations by majority rather than unanimous vote.

  • DOE will not reimburse contractors' costs of contesting claims or awards based on panel findings. Contractors must pay the costs if they choose to contest despite DOE opposition. The earlier draft allowed for reimbursement of legal costs to contest all issues except cause of illness.