U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) today said the unsung heroes that helped the nation win the Cold War deserve quick and fair compensation for the illnesses they may have contracted while working at nuclear facilities around the country.
Alexander expressed his concerns that the federal government is making sick nuclear workers wait too long during an oversight hearing on a compensation program for sick nuclear workers held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
“We must serve the men and women who built our nuclear deterrent,” said Alexander, who served as the senior Republican member during the hearing. “These cold warriors weren’t serving in the heat of the battle, but in the laboratory, daily handling materials that posed risks many scientists didn’t understand at the time. Today many of those unsung Cold War heroes are sick, and I’m concerned that they are waiting too long to find out if they are eligible for compensation and, when they are, to be compensated.”
Alexander said those workers are waiting an average of 267 days before their claims are process, up from 175 days just one year ago.
“That’s a long time for someone who is ill,” Alexander said. “We must find out why these wait times are increasing and what can be done to reverse that trend, so that our Cold War heroes can get the compensation they are due before it is too late.”
This hearing, requested by Alexander this summer, examined if the current compensation program is being administered in the claimant friendly manner Congress intended when it established the program in 2000 and reformed it in 2004.
Tennessee has more than 24,000 health claims – filed by more than 10,000 individual workers and/or their survivors – under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICPA). EEOICPA is responsible for identifying former nuclear weapons workers suffering from workplace-related illnesses who are eligible for compensation.
Alexander said the issue is of particular importance to Tennessee – home to the Y-12 Plant and other nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge – because:
o Tennessee has twice the number of claims of any other state.
o Fully 16% of all EEOICPA claims are Tennessee claims.
o Of Tennessee’s 24,000 claims, 18,500 (77%) have received a final decision and 5,500 (23%) claims are in process waiting for a final decision. 6,500 claims (27% of total initial applicants) have been compensated.
The HELP Committee heard testimony from federal officials and health professionals, including East Tennessee State University professor Ken Silver.
In 2000, Congress created EEOICPA to provide appropriate compensation and medical benefits to workers who contracted radiation-induced cancers, beryllium diseases or silicosis as a result of their work for the Department of Energy or its contractors.
Senator Alexander cosponsored legislation that became law in 2004 that transferred the responsibility of claims processing from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor in order to enhance and speed-up the processing of these claims.
Alexander last week also joined U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in writing U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to keep the EEOICPA’s Office of the Ombudsman open while the senators work to extend the office’s authorization. Created during the reforms in 2004 to help sick nuclear workers navigate the bureaucracy of the claimant process, the Ombudsman Office would sunset October 28, 2007. Last year alone the Office provided assistance to more than 1,300 claimants and Alexander wants the Office to remain open at least through October 28, 2012.