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Program to help sick workers faces backlog

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Sick nuclear weapons workers, some suffering from cancer and other deadly diseases, may have to wait at least seven years before they get compensated through an Energy Department program, according to a congressional investigation.

The Energy Department hasn’t even started processing more than half the claims filed under the program, according to a preliminary report by the General Accounting Office obtained by The Associated Press.

The program, mandated by Congress three years ago, is supposed to help thousands of people who were exposed to toxins while working for Energy Department contractors.

Under the law, the Energy Department must help workers sickened by chemicals file under state worker compensation systems once medical experts determine claimants got sick on the job. That reverses a decades-old policy in which the Energy Department helped contractors fight claims.

The program doesn’t have enough doctors to review claims, and the Energy Department is far short of its goal of moving 100 cases per week through the first stages of the process by last August. It is currently processing only 40 a week, the report said.

Assistant Energy Secretary Beverly Cook called the problem “a resource limitation.”

Cook said Wednesday the agency has asked Congress if it can spend an extra $9 million this year on the compensation program, which has a $16 million budget.

The Energy Department’s own statistics show only 74 out of roughly 19,000 people who filed claims under the program were told by medical experts whether their jobs made them sick.

The GAO says it will take seven years for the Energy Department to process all pending cases. The backlog could worsen as more workers file.

Cook said the agency was making “continuous improvements.”

“It’s a very difficult investigative process,” she added. “It is labor intensive, because most of these records are not electronic.”

The study’s authors have been briefing lawmakers, some whom have been pushing for the Labor Department to take over part of the program.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, attached an amendment to the Energy Department spending bill that would, if approved by House-Senate negotiators, shift some of the claims processing from the Energy Department to the Labor Department.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., supports that idea, saying the Labor Department has more experience running compensation programs.

“Legitimate claims for compensation should be processed in an efficient and timely manner,” said Whitfield, whose western Kentucky district includes a uranium enrichment plant. “The Labor Department has the experience and know-how to get the job done.”

Whitfield also has introduced legislation requiring the federal government to pay the claims for workers exposed to chemicals outright, similar to a law requiring the government to pay $150,000 and medical costs for weapons workers sickened by cancer-causing radiation.

The Energy Department has no authority to pay the claims directly, since the workers were not technically federal employees but worked for contractors.

The GAO report points out that problems exist where no contractors are left, such as at a facility in Burlington, Iowa, or where contractors are not self-insured but have worker compensation insurance from private companies. The Energy Department has no relationship with the private insurers and cannot compel them to pay claims.

Similarly, if contractors get worker compensation insurance by paying into state-run funds, the Energy Department has no power to instruct the state funds to pay claims. That’s a problem in Ohio.

In Kentucky, a private company leases the plant in Whitfield’s district from the Energy Department to produce nuclear fuel for commercial use. But since Bethesda, Md.-based USEC Inc. isn’t a government contractor, the Energy Department cannot tell the company to pay the claims there.