Amchitka Worker Compensation Claims
Sen. Murkowski Demands Improvement
November 22, 2003
Murkowski, during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee into implementation of the Energy Employees Occupational Illnesses Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), attacked the department for its processing of worker applications for compensation.
"The Department of Energy's extremely slow pace in processing claims is a major failure. Congress expected much more from the Department when it passed the compensation program three years ago," said Murkowski. She noted that the Department until recently had processed only 81 claims of the more than 20,000 it is responsible for reviewing, spending $15 million on the effort. While the Department last week processed 106 claims, it will take the DOE four years to process its current backlog at that pace.
The Department's pace, where it has processed only 0.4 percent of its claims contrasts with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has processed 95 percent of the approximately 35,000 compensation claims that it is responsible for reviewing under the nuclear compensation law.
Murkowski and Sen. Charles Grassley have proposed an amendment to shift the responsibility for processing all claims to the Labor Department to speed up the time frame in which worker claims are processed. She said that she will again press for passage of the processing change in the second session of the 108th Congress starting in January.
The second major problem in the program is that individuals who are judged to be eligible for compensation are being frustrated in gaining payment because contractors who formally hired the workers are challenging the payment orders in worker compensation suits in state courts.
"Currently, Alaskans who are found eligible for compensation are finding their claims aggressively contested by attorneys for the insurance companies of the DOE's Amchitka contractors. In many cases the claimants are the older widows of Amchitka workers or seriously ill former workers who are facing countless hours of depositions, prehearings, document requests and other litigation tactics by well financed insurance defense counsel. In a number of instances, Alaskans have died while waiting for their claims to be resolved.
"They are quite literally being litigated to death. This is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable," said Murkowski. "The facts here are not convoluted. This is simply a matter of what is right. Alaskans - and citizens of many other states -- worked in nuclear facilities owned by the federal government in past decades. Their efforts helped America win the Cold War. Many have become ill and many have died as a result of their work."
"This nation owes them a debt of gratitude. Sadly the implementation (of the compensation act) has not been consistent with what is right and what Congress intended when it passed the act. These workers and their survivors are entitled to far better treatment than many of them have received," said Murkowski to DOE Undersecretary Robert G. Card, who recently took over oversight of the program.
Murkowski mentioned the specific case of Sylvia Carlsson of Anchorage, whose husband was a mine shaft worker in 1970-71 on the Project Cannikin nuclear test site at Amchitka. He was 32 when he was exposed to ionizing radiation and died in 1979 at age 40 from colon cancer. While his claim has been processed and his widow was found eligible for compensation, the claim has not been paid and is facing years of legal challenge.
"I have spent countless hours in depositions, prehearing conferences and meetings in defense of my workers' compensation claim. I have had to meet demands from opposing counsel for volumes of documents, which have imposed a financial burden on me. If the Alaska Workers Compensation Board rules in my favor, I have been assured that the opposing attorneys fully intend to appeal the decision, thus tying up my claims for at least two to four years," wrote Carlsson to Murkowski.
Murkowski during tough questioning of Card urged the Department to do far more to help claimants get through the legal appeals and actually receive their compensation in a timely manner. She said Congress may well need to review the original law if the so-called willing payor issue can't be solved and soon. "Now that this hearing is over it is time for prompt action. We must address both the claims processing and the willing payor issues. The workers and their survivors deserve no less," said Murkowski.
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