By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. Jim Bunning continues to meet with key members of the Senate and House to try to influence the joint conference committee to accept his amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, which passed the Senate in June. U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield has persuaded at least 30 members of the House to sign a support letter that will be sent to conferees after Congress reconvenes Sept. 7.
"We're going to ask that conferees accept the Bunning amendment," Jeff Miles, Whitfield's press secretary, said Monday.
Bunning's legislation would eliminate a massive claims backlog by moving the program from DOE to the Department of Labor, which has handled other claims much faster. Instead of supporting similar legislation by Whitfield, the House amended the defense bill to eliminate a pay cap for DOE physician panelists in hopes of accelerating claims. Conference committee members must work out the differences in the two amendments.
The DOE program has a backlog of more than 24,000 workers' compensations claims by those exposed to toxic substances at nuclear plants. Even if DOE eliminated the backlog by the 2006 target, there is no way to force insurance companies or self-insured employers to pay claims.
Despite the problem, the Bush administration opposes moving the DOE program to the Labor Department, which would pay the claims. A separate Labor Department program has paid about $900 million — including $154 million at Paducah — to nuclear workers sickened from exposure to radiation, beryllium and silicon.
Two weeks ago, the Energy Department submitted legislation to try to hold onto its program by reimbursing current or former DOE contractors and subcontractors, state workers' compensation agencies or anyone else who would pay claims voluntarily. Only 14 claims have been paid since the DOE program started in 2001.
Some lawmakers say the Energy Department's proposal is an improvement but not a solution because it would still not force claims payments. There are also questions about funding.
Iowa Sens. Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin, who worked with Bunning on the amendment, said in recent news releases that considerable oversight and congressional pressure has been placed on DOE. Grassley said he was "looking for maximum security" in seeking to have the Labor Department pay the claims.
Given DOE's huge existing backlog, it's difficult to see how the agency could manage reimbursing hundreds of current and former contractors, subcontractors and insurance firms even if the groups agreed to pay, said Richard Miller, policy analyst for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project.
"What Sen. Bunning has done has really sort of pushed the Energy Department into a corner," he said. "You're not seeing people gravitate toward the DOE solution yet, if at all."