Sick workers seek responses to their claims
Town hall meetings are being held for workers to seek answers regarding compensation for medical claims.
By Joe Walker
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
The director of a federal program to compensate nuclear workers sickened by toxins says he understands their frustration at getting worse and still not being paid.
"That's why we are really working diligently to move things as rapidly as we can," Pete Turcic said in an interview before a town hall meeting attended by about 450 people Tuesday night at the Robert Cherry Civic Center. Another meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at the center.
Paducahan George Bourgois, a former instrument mechanic, told Turcic he has waited four years on claims of peripheral neuropathy and chronic lung disease related to heavy metal exposure at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
"Why is it taking so long to hear from those claims?" Bourgois asked.
Turcic suggested Bourgois' claim was more complex than most because it was not among those previously approved by the Department of Energy. Last fall, by act of Congress, the Labor Department assumed a nationwide backlog of 25,000 DOE claims and expects to have processed most of them by the end of 2006, Turcic said.
On Friday, three weeks ahead of schedule, labor officials exceeded a goal of making 1,200 payments nationally since May when it finalized regulations, Turcic said. Of $156.8 million paid overall, $26.3 million has been paid at Paducah. Although most of that has gone to survivors with simple cases not requiring regulations, checks are now being paid more rapidly to workers themselves, he said.
Leading the list of claimants are those who received a positive finding from DOE: Those with established lost wages or impairment from toxic exposure, and with the clearest links between illness and exposure.
As of a week ago, out of 3,749 cases at Paducah, 379 had been recommended for approval, 281 had received final approval, 209 had been paid and 72 were awaiting payment, Turcic said. There has been no finding in the remaining 2,808 cases. Workers have 60 days after recommended approval to object. If none is filed, a final decision is reached within another 30 days. Payments come within 15 days of a final decision, Turcic said.
More complex cases with worker objections can last six months if a hearing is required, he said. Turcic said complications arise when claimants have received state workers' compensation benefits or lawsuit tort judgments. Those payments are deducted from the Labor Department claims, which pay up to $250,000 to the sickest workers for bodily impairment and lost wages.
To expedite claims, tables are being developed to match jobs, chemicals and diseases without having to quantify exposures. Turcic said, for example, that neuropathy and chronic lung disease are common in welders, and asbestosis is solely caused by asbestos exposure.
Claims are paid when it is determined "as least as likely as not" that toxic exposure caused, contributed to or aggravated an illness, Turcic said. "That's a pretty low bar."
Cases that aren't as clear take longer because they are forwarded to experts for recommendations, but that doesn't mean claims will be denied, he said.
Another provision allows surviving spouses and dependent children of workers who died from toxic exposure to receive up to $175,000. At the time of the worker´s death, an eligible child must have been under 18, a full-time student under 23, or any age and incapable of self-support.
Claims may be filed or reviewed at 125 Memorial Drive, next to Milner & Orr Funeral Home off Blandville Road. Phone: 534-0599 or toll-free 866-534-0599. Claims problems may be forwarded to the new ombudsman's office at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free, 877-662-8363.