The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Sick workers need timely aid

Congress needs to rescue some 19,000 ailing nuclear industry workers from the bureaucratic swamps of the U.S. Department of Energy.

These sick workers have been waiting for two years to receive compensation for illnesses they contracted while working in the government's nuclear program.

So far, DOE has sent just four claims to a panel of doctors for evaluation. By contrast, the Department of Labor, which is administering a separate program for nuclear workers who were exposed to radiation and beryllium, has approved 465 claims in its Paducah office alone.

Nationally, the Department of Labor has approved more than 34,000 claims and paid out $353 million to nuclear industry workers and their families, the Courier-Journal of Louisville reported.

It's clear the Department of Labor, headed by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, is making an exceptional effort to ensure sick workers are compensated for the suffering they've endured as a result of their work for the government.

But Department of Energy officials seem to be handling their part of the program with the same speed and efficiency they brought to the original environmental cleanup at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which consumed a decade and more than $400 million without removing a single barrel of waste.

First District Congressman Ed Whitfield and a bipartisan group of House members have come up with a proposal to break the impasse. A bill introduced in the House would put the Department of Labor in charge of processing claims for the program and remove some of the regulatory and funding hurdles that have prevented workers from getting timely assistance.

The bill also would expand eligibility for the program by including illnesses such as chronic renal disease and lung cancer caused by exposure to beryllium.

One of the biggest hurdles for workers is the lack of private payers; DOE can't force a private contractor to pay claims for eligible workers.

If Whitfield's bill is passed, all the claims would be paid from the $1.7 billion federal fund that covers claims under the program administered by the Department of Labor.

Since the federal government has admitted responsibility for exposing nuclear workers to dangerous substances, fairness and logic dictate that the government pick up the full tab for compensation. The contractors were acting in behalf of the government.

In any event, the current DOE compensation system is too unwieldy to provide the needed help for workers. Again, the government has taken responsibility for the harm suffered by these workers they should not have to wait for years to receive assistance through DOE and state worker compensation programs.

Whitfield's bill leaves DOE in charge of determining eligibility, but gives the agency 120 days from the date of filing to accept or reject a claim.

After a worker is declared eligible, Department of Labor officials would determine the level of disability and process the claim. This should speed the delivery of benefits to sick workers, including some who have contracted fatal illnesses and may not survive long enough to receive aid through the current DOE program.

Whitfield is unsure of the legislation's prospects in the waning days of the current session of Congress.

A hope is that the congressional leadership, which has devoted quite a bit of time and tax money this year to funding projects that few would describe as essential, will see the need for helping sick veterans of the Cold War who are trapped in a well-intended but seriously flawed program.