The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, October 05, 2002

Bunning enters Senate sick workers' bill
The measure would close a loophole that currently would not require payment even in cases deemed eligible.

By Joe Walker

Sen. Jim Bunning has introduced legislation to have the Department of Labor compensate nuclear workers sickened from exposure to toxic substances.

Bunning, R-Southgate, said the bill would correct a flaw in 2000 legislation that could prevent half the legitimate claims from receiving state workers’ compensation. That's because 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.

On Friday, Bunning joined Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in filing the Energy Workers Compensation Act of 2002. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, introduced similar legislation a week ago.

“Any time you are dealing with a program of this magnitude, there are going to be minor glitches,” Bunning said. “Our legislation attempts to correct a serious problem that currently delays funds from getting to these sick workers."

He said the loophole "really hits home" for former government contract workers now employed by USEC, a private firm.

Even if an independent physicians' panel determines that a worker should be compensated, "USEC has no obligation to follow that panel's decision and will be able to contest the claim," Bunning said. "I am going to work hard here in Congress to see that this problem is fixed."

He said the bill fulfills intent of 2000 legislation to compensate nuclear workers sickened by exposure to toxic substances. The program, now run by the Department of Energy, relies on each state's worker compensation system to determine lost wages and health-care costs. DOE tells its contractors not to contest payouts and reimburses them.

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.

But DOE has sent only four claims to the doctors’ panel for review in the 23 months since enactment, and because funding is discretionary, some workers may not get paid if the annually appropriated fund has been drained, according to the new legislation.

Leon Owens, president of the Paducah nuclear workers’ union known as PACE, said lawmakers want to start dialogue before Congress ends this year and bring the legislation to a vote next year.

The new legislation would retain an independent physicians’ panel to determine eligibility for benefits, but remove state workers’ compensation from the equation. It would 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 who get $150,000 lump-sum payments for specific cancers and other diseases related to radiation and beryllium exposure.