Knoxville News Sentinel - Frank Munger
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is pushing the Bush administration to provide more money for sick nuclear workers, citing concerns about a budget shortfall in the compensation program and reported cutbacks in processing worker claims.
Alexander sent a letter Monday to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt urging them to fix problems that are creating a backlog in casework and delaying payments to sick workers or their surviving relatives.
The senator said Tennessee has more than 23,000 claims filed under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Most of those are associated with workers or former workers at the government's Oak Ridge nuclear facilities.
"We have twice the number of claims than any other state, so this is very important to Tennessee," Alexander said in a press statement. "We have to be a leader on this. The EEOICPA was created to process these claims quickly and effectively. It's time for it to fulfill that promise."
About 7,000 Tennessee claims are pending, the senator said.
"We should be treating our Cold War veterans at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge and other facilities with the same respect they have treated our country," he said.
Alexander also signed a second letter with other senators asking that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hold a hearing on the administration of the sick worker program.
Janet Michel, a former worker at the Oak Ridge K-25 plant who has a claim pending for heavy-metal poisoning, welcomed the senator's help.
"It's been extremely frustrating to see how far behind they already are (in processing claims)," Michel said. "Let's get on the stick and get it funded."
Michel said the government reportedly has spent as much as $500 million for administration of the program yet is stingy in awarding money to people in need.
"By our own calculations, somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of the claims have been rejected - denied," Michel said. "Now, in any kind of compensation program - whether it's workers' comp or black lung, whatever - you're always going to have some who are going to try to get something for nothing. But I don't think 60 to 90 percent is copasetic. There is something wrong."
Chuck Burnett of Seymour said he's seen just about everything during the past six years while trying to help his mother collect from the federal program.
Burnett's father, Albert Jack Burnett, died in October 1999 after suffering from multiple kidney problems - including kidney cancer - attributed to working at the Oak Ridge facilities.
The original claim for compensation was filed July 11, 2001.
Burnett said the family was able to collect promptly under Part B of the program because his father worked at K-25, which placed him in a "special cohort" and didn't require proof that radiation caused the cancer.
However, collecting under Part D of the program - later revised and changed to Part E - has proved elusive. Part E was set up for workers or their families to collect for a range of illnesses caused by toxic exposures.
Burnett said there was a "split decision" on the initial claim, requiring an appeal within 30 days. Since then, he said, the appeal has been bumped from one examiner to another and delayed for years - even though at one time it reportedly was approved.
"It's such a fiasco," he said.
Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.