Sick workers need real help
Thousands of sick nuclear workers are still languishing in the Department of Energy's dysfunctional compensation program, with little or no relief — or justice — in sight.
The DOE program has a backlog of more than 23,000 claims, including about 2,800 claims filed by workers and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. As of early April, the four-year-old program had paid one claim.
First District Congressman Ed Whitfield, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other members of Congress have applied pressure on the agency to speed up the claims process, but to no avail.
During congressional hearings in April, DOE administrators took a beating over the program's inability to move claims submitted by workers suffering from illnesses related to exposure to toxic substances. A short time later, two DOE officials in charge of the compensation program left the agency, sparking hope among the workers' congressional allies that the energy bureaucracy would make speeding up the claims process a top priority.
After observing DOE in action on the environmental cleanup at the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, western Kentuckians know that speed and efficiency aren't the agency's calling cards.
The ailing workers are caught in an open-ended bureaucratic process that offers them at best a small hope of ever receiving just compensation for their job-related illnesses.
Rod Cook, an employee at the Paducah plant who has lost one-fifth of his lung function from breathing asbestos, put the problems in the claims program in a human perspective when he observed that he agreed to give the plant a hard day's work, but not part of his lung.
"Somehow, I'd like to be compensated by somebody," Cook said.
Whitfield is backing an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would marginally improve the workers' chances of receiving compensation.
The amendment, which passed by a voice vote last week, would make several changes in the compensation program, including the elimination of a pay cap for doctors who serve on claims panels. Under the amendment, the market would set pay levels for the physicians.
DOE officials requested these changes, saying they would help the agency pay at least several hundred claims by the end of the year. But even if DOE meets that target, more than 22,000 sick workers would still be waiting in line on Jan. 1, 2005.
In announcing his support for the amendment, Whitfield stressed that it falls far short of fixing the flawed compensation system. But he said it may be the only help the workers will receive from Congress this year.
The fatal flaw of the program is that it does not give DOE the authority to direct its contractors or their insurers to pay claims.
So even if the agency accelerates the processing of claims — only about 400 have been approved so far — the workers still may never see a check.
As a former official of the union that represents workers at the Paducah plant put it, the DOE program is a "cruel and unfortunate hoax." The program requires sick workers to jump through several bureaucratic hoops, but at the end gives them no assurance of ever receiving compensation.
The DOE program is beyond repair. The only real hope for those waiting for assistance is a proposal backed by Whitfield to move the program to the Labor Department.
Labor Department officials oversee a separate program that compensates workers with radiation-related illnesses. Since July 31, 2001, the department has approved more than 12,000 claims and paid a total of $820 million in compensation. In Kentucky alone, the program has paid 1,100 claims.
Workers whose claims are approved by Labor Department officials don't have to worry about compensation — the money is paid from a federal fund set up for that purpose.
Congress must take responsibility for the failure of the DOE compensation program. The hearings and the amendments to the original legislation are only serving to perpetuate this "cruel and unfortunate hoax."