The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, November 07, 2003

Thwarting claims transfer blamed on DOE
Criticism began after legislators deleted an amendment to move the sick worker program to the Labor Department.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

Union leaders and two watchdog groups blame the U.S. Department of Energy and a contractor for helping thwart legislation to ease the agency's seven-year backlog of claims to compensate sick nuclear workers.

The critics say Science and Engineering Associates of Louisiana, which processes the claims, used high-powered lobbying and political perks to sway some lawmakers. But SEA Chief Executive Officer Bobby Savoie called the allegations ridiculous.

"We fully support the right of sick workers to be reimbursed for their illnesses. I've spent 20 years working in the DOE complex and many of these people are personal friends of mine," he said. "The idea that we would want to defeat a program that would reimburse people who are ill as a result of radiation exposure is absurd."

Sen. Jim Bunning, who backed the legislation, has called a Senate Energy Committee hearing at 9 a.m. CST Wednesday to review the claims program. Bunning is a member of the committee.

Legislation to help sick workers has two parts:

One, handled by the Department of Labor, has processed more than 94 percent of nearly 36,000 claims received and paid roughly $700 million nationwide to uranium enrichment workers with specific cancers and other illnesses related to radiation exposure.

The other, run by the Energy Department, provides state workers' compensation benefits to nuclear workers sickened by exposure to toxins. The General Accounting Office estimates it will take DOE until 2010 to work through nearly 21,000 claims, about three-fourths of which are merely in the beginning stages.

Legislators on Wednesday deleted an energy spending bill amendment to move the backlogged Energy Department program to the Labor Department. That drew sharp criticism from Leon Owens, president of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant atomic workers' union, and Richard Miller, policy analyst of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project.

"It's a victory for high-powered lobbyists and the bureaucracy that fought so diligently to defeat this amendment," Owens said, adding that the union would keep trying to fix the law to help workers. He called the defeat "a desperately sad day."

Miller, who formerly lobbied for the union, said Bunning and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, tried to preserve the amendment. Other House-Senate conferees sided with the Energy Department and SEA, who "vigorously opposed" the amendment, as did the Bush administration, he said.

"We are at a loss to explain why the DOE is so attached to a program that it lacks the expertise or infrastructure to administer," Miller said. "It appears to be partly bureaucratic pride, and partly opposition to spending the funds required to compensate those workers made sick in DOE's nuclear weapons factories."

The Project on Government Oversight, another Washington watchdog organization, said the amendment would have taken business away from SEA, which has already been paid more than $15 million. Quoting the Center for Responsive Politics, project officials said that from 1998 to 2002, SEA executives and their wives increased their contributions to key lawmakers by $46,000. In particular, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., received $7,000 and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., received $7,750.

Domenici is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles the energy and water spending bill. Landrieu is a member of the Senate Appropriations committee.

Scott Amey, senior investigator for the project, said Landrieu and Sen. John B. Breaux, D-La., wrote Domenici to oppose the amendment. Switching the program to the Labor Department "directly impacts a key employer in our state" and could create even more delays, the letter said.

Breaux said last week that "Energy is committed to fixing it and should be given the opportunity to do that."

SEA's Savoie said Thursday that moving the program to the Labor Department would make things worse because it would have to "re-create" DOE staffing, processing and review of the claims by a physicians' panel. The real problem with the law is that even if a claim is approved, there is nothing to compel an insurer to pay workers' compensation claims, he said.

"The bottom line is the amendment didn't fix the problem, but we do absolutely support the right of nuclear workers to receive payment for their illnesses," Savoie said. "We're doing our best to process those records and help Congress set up a program to allow them to get paid."

Whitfield introduced a bill to require the Labor Department to pay the claims through a federal entitlement program similar to that for workers sickened by radiation exposure. He said earlier that he was skeptical of the bill's chances this fall.

Savoie downplayed suggestions that his firm would have lost business because of the amendment.

"Losing the business doesn't matter because the Labor Department would have had to hire people with background in radiation exposure, medical case workers and people to do records processing," he said. "We have that background and we would bid on that work with the Labor Department or the Energy Department."