Sick workers mired in DOE swamp
A flawed claims process and a cumbersome federal bureaucracy are keeping thousands of sick nuclear workers from receiving just and timely compensation for their ailments.
The compensation program managed by the Department of Energy has approved only 45 claims from workers with diseases linked to exposure to toxic substances in federal nuclear facilities such as the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
More than 19,000 claims are stuck in the DOE pipeline. Federal officials say it will take program administrators at least seven years to clear the backlog.
Unless something is done to speed up the DOE process, it's possible, if not probable, that hundreds of Cold War-era nuclear plant workers will die waiting for compensation for their medical bills and their suffering.
The Associated Press profiled one worker stricken with cancer who died before the federal government processed his claim.
Jerry Tudor, who worked at the Y-12 weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., died Jan. 4 — more than 18 months after he sought compensation for his illness. His wife told a reporter that her husband knew he would never personally benefit from the money. "He said from the beginning that it would be a death benefit ... because the federal agencies were dragging their feet," she said.
Robert Pierce, a former DOE employee at the Paducah plant, would like to just get a response from the agency about his claim for larynx cancer.
"They keep saying they'll call me that day or the next day, and as of today it's been four weeks," Pierce told the Sun. "It's very frustrating."
Sadly, Tudor and Pierce were victimized by the ''luck" of the draw.
Thousands of sick workers and their families already have received cash and medical benefits through a program administered by the Labor Department.
The Labor Department has paid more than 10,000 claims to workers exposed to radiation and beryllium. These workers received $657 million in cash and $18 million in medical care.
But thousands of other workers have ended up in limbo because their illnesses landed them in the DOE-administered program.
The DOE program is fundamentally flawed because workers' claims are paid through state workers' compensation insurers. Those insurers cannot be forced to pay claims.
By contrast, the Labor Department pays claims from a federal fund set up to compensate workers with diseases related to radiation and beryllium exposure.
The DOE program subjects workers to lengthy "dose studies" that attempt to determine how much radiation they received on the job and whether that exposure was likely to have caused their illnesses.
This is not a precise science, but the program's insistence on precision effectively is preventing thousands of ailing nuclear workers from obtaining benefits.
Paducah plant workers aren't surprised that the DOE program has turned into a bureaucratic quagmire.
The agency spent 10 years and $400 million studying and categorizing contamination at the gaseous diffusion plant without removing a single barrel of waste.
Similarly, DOE officials dragged their feet for years on a congressional mandate to build uranium conversion facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio.
The logical way to rescue sick workers stranded in the DOE program is to transfer authority for processing their claims to the Labor Department.
First District Congressman Ed Whitfield has been pursuing that option for more than a year. He has reintroduced a bill in Congress that would require the Labor Department to pay claims for workers currently covered by the DOE program.
Also, an amendment attached to a Senate bill would give the Labor Department most of the responsibility for clearing the backlog of 19,000 cases.
The federal government promised more than three years ago to take full responsibility for exposing nuclear workers to a dangerous and potentially deadly work environment.
That promise should apply to all workers who developed diseases related to their exposure to hazardous substances — not just those fortunate enough to be covered by the Labor Department program.