Compensation Fund For Ill Nuclear Workers
April 1, 2004
"When Congress passed the Energy Employees Act in 2000 it recognized it owed a debt to these Americans. Congress did not intend that these elderly widows or seriously ill survivors be put through more suffering and then most likely not receive the compensation they have earned. I will not rest until we resolve this fiasco," said Murkowski during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing into the causes of problems with the worker compensation program.
Congress in 2000 created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act to pay compensation claims of workers judged to have been injured by radiation or other toxic substances from their work on federal programs. Of specific interest to Alaska, the program offers compensation to any of the nearly 2,000 workers who became ill after laboring between 1965 and 1971 on three hydrogen bomb nuclear weapons tests conducted on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians.
Murkowski said the program has two major problems. First workers must have their compensation claims reviewed for merit. While the Department of Labor has processed 95 percent of the 52,000 claim applications it is responsible for, the Department of Energy has processed only a tiny percentage of its 22,000 claims. The second problem is that the program, which requires that compensation be paid pursuant to state workers compensation laws is having trouble providing payments since active "willing payors" have been hard or impossible to identify in a number of states, Alaska among them.
Murkowski said DOE in recent months has speeded up its processing of claims, now averaging about 100 a week. "Unfortunately even at the new rate they will not eliminate their backlog of cases, currently around 20,000, for year years many of the elderly and sick claimants do not have," said Murkowski.
She said no progress has yet been made on the bigger problem of finding companies willing to pay claims once a claimant has been found eligible for compensation. Murkowski spoke of the problems of Sylvia Carlsson of Anchorage, whose husband died of colon cancer at age 41, nine years after working on the final Amchitka test as a mine shaft worker.
"Mrs. Carlsson is one of the few individuals in the U.S. whose claim has actually been processed through a physicians' panel. She was unanimously approved for compensation. But her experience after receiving the positive determination serves as a mockery of that finding. Her experience should serve as a warning to Congress and to the many thousands of claimants throughout the country of what to expect if the willing payor issue is not resolved," said Murkowski at the hearing.
While the 2000 law intended that the physicians' panel recommendations would be acted upon by state worker compensation boards, attorneys working for the insurance company opposing Mrs. Carlsson's claim argued before the Alaska Workers Compensation Board that the finding could not be relied on unless the doctors were deposed or appeared at a board hearing. The Department of Energy, meanwhile, refused to allow the doctors to be deposed or cross-examined at Mrs. Carlsson's hearing. The Alaska board then ruled the panel's decision was hearsay evidence and Mrs. Carlsson was left with a much less persuasive case for compensation.
Murkowski, quoting a letter from Mrs. Carlsson, said the inability to get the doctor's compensation panel's finding into the record actually "caused serious damage to the outcome of my Alaska Workers Compensation Board case."
"This clearly is not how Congress expected the law to work when it was approved. Changes must be made," said Murkowski, who last year proposed a provision with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to transfer the program from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor to improve claims processing, and hopefully solve problems with the willing payor issue. Murkowski said she will work to see passage of changes to fix the willing payor problem this year.
Murkowski and Grassley have been working since last year to improve the compensation program. Subpart B of the program allows a host of nuclear workers to apply for compensation of $150,000 if they became ill with radiation-related diseases. Subpart D of the program allows for workers to file workers compensation claims. In Alaska the compensation plan is open to about 2,000 workers who helped with site preparation for the Amchitka nuclear weapons tests. About 300 of the workers still live in Alaska.
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