The bill would shift authority to the Department of Labor to clear a backlog of nearly 19,000 sick worker claims.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The Energy and Water Appropriations bill amendment would shift responsibility from the Department of Energy, which has nearly 19,000 workers' compensation claims outstanding. The General Accounting Office projects it will take seven years for a DOE-appointed physicians' panel, which rules on the merit of claims, to clear the backlog.
The Senate amendment would require Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to sign an agreement within 45 days of the legislation. Within 90 days of passage, Chao would assume claims management and operations, including developing information for the panel. Abraham would provide managerial and financial support.
"At this point, there is no formal administration position, but I am confident that the DOL will be able to process claims much faster because they have the expertise, infrastructure and staff," said Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project.
So far, the panel has reviewed only 74 claims and approved 45. Even if a claim is approved, there is no way to compel a state workers' compensation insurer to pay it, according to Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. He has a bill requiring the Labor Department to pay claims, but says it may get little attention this year because of other pressing matters in Congress.
His bill and the Senate amendment have support from energy workers' union locals in Paducah and other cities with Energy Department plants. Leon Owens, president of the Paducah local, said DOE has had two years to set up the claims program.
"A couple of years is more than sufficient time," he said. "Politically, people realize this part of the law just hasn't worked."
Owens said the union is confident in the Labor Department, which nationwide has paid more than 10,000 claims totaling $657 million in cash, including more than 1,000 claims exceeding $119 million on behalf of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers.
The Labor Department payments are for 22 specific cancers and two other diseases associated with uranium enrichment. The Energy Department program requires extensive work to calculate toxic exposures and determine if there are related sicknesses.
Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio has asked the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate the backlog. He wrote committee Chairman Billy Tauzin last week, saying the Energy Department has spent $15 million on claims contracting and wants another $9.7 million to speed up the process.
"I am not convinced that more money would ensure DOE can successfully process its backlog of claims in a timely manner," he wrote, adding that the administrative cost per claim exceeds $30,000.