Congress faces deadline on sick worker proposal payments
Saturday, October 02, 2004
Heading into the weekend, in the final hours of joint House-Senate conference work, members of the Kentucky congressional delegation were trying to salvage an amendment to better compensate nuclear workers sickened from toxic exposure.
A House proposal in conference would have replaced much of Sen. Jim Bunning's amendment with a series of tiered lump-sum payments tied to workers' level of impairment as determined by the Department of Labor. Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers qualifying for $150,000 lump-sum payments for radiation-induced cancers would get nothing for toxic exposure unless it exceeded that amount.
"That would have effectively zeroed-out the lion's share of the claims at Paducah," said Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. "This would be taking away something that people already have, and for the House to put this on the table was a matter of grave concern."
Miller said the Senate called an emergency meeting late Friday afternoon, but he was unaware of the outcome. House and Senate negotiators were trying to work out their differences before Congress adjourns next week for a lengthy recess. Bunning expressed cautious optimism that a deal would be reached.
"We're in the final stages of the conference. They're under orders to close this thing out this weekend," Miller said. "My feeling is that we're right down to the wire."
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, issued a statement saying the House plan was "a far cry" from the Bunning amendment because of the offsetting-payment provision. He also expressed concern over the lack of a wage-based benefit for people with long-term disabilities.
"I have met with the House negotiators and will continue to push for an outcome that is best for the Paducah workers," he said.
Miller said Bunning's staff worked at length this week to try to salvage Bunning's legislation to eliminate a massive claims backlog by having the Labor Department pay toxic-exposure claims, as it does for radiation-induced cancers.
Both Bunning's and the recent House proposal would remove toxic-exposure claims from the Department of Energy, withwhich has a backlog of more than 24,000 cases.
The Labor Department program has paid about $900 million including $154 million at Paducah to nuclear workers sickened from exposure to radiation, beryllium and silicon.