U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today introduced legislation that would ensure compensation for the families of sick former nuclear workers won’t be taken away in cases where sick workers or their eligible survivors die before their claims are processed.
“We should not allow an inefficient bureaucracy to run out the clock through a claims process that takes so long that our Cold War heroes are dying before their claims are processed, leaving their families with no compensation,” Alexander said. “The men and women who built our nuclear deterrent – and their families – deserve better. According to estimates from the Department of Labor, this will affect approximately 1,200 current and future claimants.”
Alexander said his amendment – which would reform the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) – is needed to address cases where sick former nuclear workers and their eligible survivors die during a claims process that can take years to complete, resulting in no compensation for family members.
The Alexander amendment, cosponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and six other senators, would address these problems by paying compensation to other family members – including children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents – who are not considered eligible survivors under current law.
Alexander has been a leader of legislative efforts to improve the EEIOCPA program. He cosponsored legislation that became law in 2004 to speed-up the processing of these claims by transferring the responsibility from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor. Alexander also teamed with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on an amendment that became law in 2007 that extended by five years the Office of the EIOCPA Part E Ombudsman, which helps claimants navigate the system and makes recommendations to Congress on how to improve the program.
Alexander said his amendment addresses a problem highlighted in a 2007 EEOICPA Ombudsman’s report to Congress which stated that “adult children have written and spoken of the hardship they endured in caring for their dying parent and the personal and financial sacrifices they made to care for their terminally ill mother or father … it is all the more appropriate for them to be eligible (for benefits) in light of the care they provided and the sacrifices they made.” Alexander also said his amendment responds to complaints he heard at a Senate committee hearing that Bingaman and he co-chaired in October 2007 on the sick nuclear worker issue.
In cases where sick former nuclear workers die before their claims are processed, the new amendment also would allow eligible survivors to choose between receiving either the benefits of the deceased employee or the survivor’s benefits. Existing law limits this choice to eligible survivors of sick workers who died before their claims were processed from a cause other than work-related condition covered under EEOICPA. The Alexander amendment would expand that choice to all eligible survivors.
“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,” Alexander said. “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.”
EEOICPA was enacted in 2000 to provide compensation and health benefits to former nuclear weapons workers suffering from workplace-related illnesses. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Tennessee had more claims under EEOICPA than any other state. As of July 2008, Tennessee had more than 26,240 health claims under EEOICPA. Of those claims, 4,630 were still awaiting final decision.
“We have twice the number of claims than any other state, so this is very important to Tennessee,” said Alexander. “We should be treating our Cold War veterans who worked at the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge and other facilities with the same respect they have treated our country.”
The Alexander-Bingaman amendment was offered to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 (S. 3001). In addition to Bingaman, the amendment is cosponsored by Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), George Voinovich (R-OH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Lisa Murkoswki (R-AK), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).