The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, September 27, 2002

Sick workers' bill seeks combined plan to pay in toxic matter exposure
Whitfield helps introduce the measure, which will avoid the 'willing' payer loophole of the present slow program.

By Joe Walker

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield and several House colleagues introduced legislation Thursday to have the Department of Labor compensate nuclear workers who got sick from exposure to toxic substances.

Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said the bill seeks to correct a flaw in 2000 legislation that could prevent half the legitimate claims from receiving state workers' compensation because there is no "willing" payer. The Department of Energy has no authority to make a privately insured former contractor or firm such as Paducah uranium enrichment plant operator USEC Inc. pay a claim even after a worker is deemed eligible for benefits, he said.

The new bill seeks to:

  • Retain an independent physicians' panel to determine eligibility for benefits, but removes state workers' compensation from the equation.

  • Authorize the Labor Department to determine the level of disability and benefits, to be paid from the same permanent federal fund set up for workers with specific cancers and other diseases related to radiation and beryllium exposure.

  • Add chronic renal disease to the list of illnesses for which workers are eligible for $150,000. Chronic renal disease is associated with uranium exposure, and there have been some reported cases by enrichment plant workers, Whitfield said.

  • Add lung cancer to the list of covered beryllium diseases. If the cancer arose five years after a worker's first exposure to beryllium, the worker would receive $150,000.

  • Authorize the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to recommend to Congress additional "radiogenic" cancers for the lump-sum-payment list.

  • Allow people to file claims who were unwittingly employed in former weapons-production plants that remained contaminated with radiation or beryllium.

  • Establish an ombudsman to help claimants with the administrative process.

    "This is an effort to fairly compensate all men and women who are ill because of working at the Paducah plant regardless of the cause of their illness," Whitfield said. "They deserve fair compensation without having to go through a complicated procedure to receive proper health care. These veterans of the Cold War deserve no less."

    He said he worked from the start with the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio, to draft the new bill. In 2000, Whitfield introduced the original legislation that was the basis for the overall compensation program.

    The 2000 law created separate programs one for workers exposed to radiation and beryllium, administered by the Labor Department, and a second for workers exposed to toxic substances and other hazardous materials, partly administered by the Energy Department.

    According to language in the new bill, the second program has moved too slowly. The Energy Department, which finalized regulations last month after almost two years, has sent only four claims to the doctors' panel for review in the 23 months since enactment.

    Under existing regulations, DOE tells contractors not to contest an anticipated 2,000 to 6,000 workers' compensation claims nationwide. But DOE concedes that as many as 50 percent of the claims will not have a willing payer, and because funding is discretionary, some workers may not get paid if the annually appropriated fund has been drained.

    Leon Owens, president of the Paducah nuclear workers' union known as PACE, said Whitfield wants to start dialogue before Congress ends this year and bring the bill to a vote next year.

    "We're hopeful not only for bipartisan support from Congress, but support from the construction trades who rallied with PACE for the earlier legislation," he said, adding that both nuclear and construction workers have risked toxic exposure at the Paducah plant.

    Owens said having the Labor Department pay toxic-exposure claims is better because Labor Secretary Elaine Chao "has done a wonderful job" paying claims for radiation-induced cancers. The new legislation would allow claims centers across the nation to remain open at least for two more years, he said.

    "Ours was the first to open and is among the leading claims centers in the country," Owens said. "We definitely want to keep it open to assist workers and their families."