The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, April 11, 2003

New sick worker bill to break toxic substance claim logjam
Only 16 of the more than 15,000 claims have been decided, and more than 12,000 of the claims ‘are logjammed.’

By Joe Walker

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield has reintroduced legislation to have the Department of Labor compensate nuclear workers who got sick from exposure to toxic substances.

Scheduled to be filed Thursday night, the bill corrects a flaw in 2000 legislation that could prevent half the legitimate claimants from receiving state workers' compensation because there is no "willing" payer, said Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. 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 2000 legislation 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.

Whitfield said his new bill deals with the troublesome second program: Twelve states have said they will not abide by a doctors' panel set up to determine eligibility, and only 16 of the more than 15,000 claims have been decided. More than 12,000 of the claims "are logjammed" awaiting radiation-exposure estimates at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, he said.

He said the Labor Department "has a good track record" of deciding more than 20,000 claims and paying $528 million in benefits to sick workers. Of that amount, nearly $92.1 million has been paid through the Paducah claims office to 2,889 workers or families.

The repair legislation was first submitted last fall, too late in the budget-laden session to receive action. The updated bill would:

Retain the physicians' panel 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 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.

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.