House blocks help for sick workers
For ailing nuclear workers trapped in the Department of Energy's noncompensation program, the light at the end of the tunnel is fading to black.
The workers' hopes for a congressional rescue were lifted in June when the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the defense spending bill that would move the program from DOE to the Labor Department. But key leaders in the House and officials in the Bush administration are standing by DOE, despite overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of sick workers seeking help through the energy agency will never receive compensation.
Sen. Jim Bunning authored the Senate amendment, which attracted support from influential senators who had previously opposed putting the Labor Department in charge of compensating nuclear workers suffering from illnesses linked to exposure to toxic substances.
The Senate vote was an important legislative breakthrough for workers and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and dozens of other federal installations around the country.
First District Congressman Ed Whitfield and other critics of the slow-moving DOE program have been trying for two years to transfer oversight of the compensation system to the Labor Department.
Labor officials administer a remarkably successful compensation program for workers with cancer and other illnesses related to exposure to radiation or beryllium and silicon. Since 2001 the department has processed more than 50,000 claims and paid out $900 million in health benefits and lump-sum compensation.
The labor program has paid $154 million to workers and former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
More than 23,000 claims are pending in the DOE-administered program. Over the past four years, the program has processed about 300 claims and provided modest compensation to all of 10 workers.
The taxpayers' bill for this bureaucratic nightmare is $95 million — the amount Congress has appropriated to DOE to run the compensation system.
Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, says DOE is spending about $10,000 per claim. The Labor Department processes workers' claims at the cost of $817 per case, Miller says.
Energy department officials have repeatedly promised to speed up the compensation process. The DOE program has paid nine claims in the past four months. That is a considerable improvement over the one claim paid in the previous three years, but this success rate offers little hope to the thousands of sick workers still waiting in line.
It's clear the only way to eliminate the massive backlog of cases is to move the program to the Labor Department, which is authorized to pay claims from a $1.7 billion federal fund. The Energy Department program relies on insurance companies or self-insured employers to pay workers' compensation. If insurers contest the claims, DOE cannot compel them to pay.
This means workers with serious illnesses can wait for years to have their claims approved and still end up with nothing.
Five years ago, the federal government accepted responsibility for exposing workers at nuclear installations to dangerous materials such as highly radioactive plutonium. Bill Richardson, who headed DOE during the Clinton administration, promised employees and former employees of the Paducah enrichment plant that the government would be working for them, not against them.
House leaders and Bush administration officials need to deliver on that promise for workers caught in the dysfunctional DOE compensation program.
The workers compensated by the Labor Department have seen the federal government at its best. It's unacceptable for the government to allow another group of Cold War-era workers to languish in a program that has been accurately described as a cruel hoax.