GAO investigates sick workers compensation program

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has been asked to look into bottlenecks in the Departments of Labor and Energy's system set up to handle compensation claims filed by sick nuclear workers from the Cold War era, or their survivors.
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000 has been administered by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), along with the Department of Energy (DOE). It was signed by the President on Dec. 7, 2000, and was designed to serve the hundreds of thousands of men and women who served their nation in building its nuclear defense.
An estimated 650,000 to 750,000 persons worked in the nation's nuclear weapons program, with thousands of them developing disabling or fatal illnesses as a result of exposure to ionizing radiation, and toxic beryllium and silica materials. The workers often were not adequately protected from, nor informed of the occupational hazards to which they were exposed, according to the act.
Of those workers, an estimated 200 to 400 persons from Carter, Unicoi, and Washington counties worked at W.R. Grace in Erwin, Tenn., which in 1964 became known as Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. (NFS).
Facilities such as W.R. Grace conducted nuclear weapons-related work for a limited period of time or in select areas of their plants. Some sites worked with radioactive materials to evaluate processing machinery that was being considered for use in atomic weapons production.
As of Sept. 30, 49 "claims" had been filed by Grace workers or their survivors. Only three were recommended for final approval. Out of those 49 claims, 41 "cases" -- which count only actual employees and not their survivors -- were filed. To date, only one compensation payment of $150,000 has been made.
Statewide, DOL statistics ending Sept. 30 showed 7,208 claims, as opposed to 5,660 cases, filed in Tennessee. Of those, 1,383 cases were approved, with final compensation totaling around $171.7 million.
Nationally, 46,970 claims have been filed, but only 8,926 compensation payments have been made, totaling $656.5 million. Nearly $17.6 million has been paid out in Medicaid medical bills, similar to Workers' Compensation.
Mary Nugent, senior analyst with GAO, confirmed Thursday that GAO is investigating handling of the compensation program. "We're just getting started on this assignment, so I can't really give you any findings or recommendations at this point," she said. Nugent could not say who requested the investigation, but did say that GAO is anticipating issuing the report in June 2004.
GAO reportedly is interested in how many EEOICPA claims have been filed with DOL and their status, how well DOL's policies and procedures assist the department in processing claims in a timely manner, how well National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH's) policies and procedures allow it to develop dose reconstructions and process petitions for special cohort status, as well as any bottlenecks in the system in getting claims processed, and potential solutions.
"In terms of being able to help them get their claims processed, we're not in a position to be able to do that," Nugent said. "But if they have information about their experience in getting their claims processed, that's something they can share with us."
Nugent suggested claimants or their survivors contact their local representative or senator to express their concerns, or contact DOL or NIOSH directly.
Glenn Bell, an Oak Ridge resident and Y-12 machinist, is a victim of Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). He also is a member of numerous support groups for CBD victims and a worker representative with the DOE Risk Analysis Committee.
As one who not only suffers from CBD but who has worked with others nationwide to see the Energy Employees act formed and passed, he knows all too well the frustration of battling both illness and the system.
Though Bell's records were well-documented, his claim originally was challenged. But his aggressiveness, along with the help of several union, government and medical associates combined to reverse the decision, paving a smoother road for other CBD claimants.
Bell had enough information from past record collection to file his own claim, but at the time of filing he also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for his dosimetry (radiation) and personnel records. "I just wanted to see what would be involved in getting them," he said. "It took 21 months."
Some who have filed might not have another 21 months, or another seven years -- the time now expected for DOE to process their part of the claims, Bell said. "What if you're at the bottom of that seven-year pile? Not good.
"We have experienced the deaths of claimants locally who were waiting on records or the completion of dose reconstruction," which could take months or years, depending on availability of data. "Federal law dictates the way this program was supposed to work, but for whatever reason, it just isn't working for the majority of claimants," Bell said.
"There's a lady here that I've been working with practically since day one, who filed for survivor's benefits. She is not much further up the chain than she was two years ago when she first filed. She's in her 70s, she's a widow, she's in assisted housing. People like that don't need to wait," he said. "She doesn't have a lot of time."
Bell also has a problem with DOL claim statistics. For the last two months that he has checked DOL's figures on Tennessee claims filed, "they haven't totaled up right," he said.
As of Aug. 26, DOL showed 7,075 claims filed statewide. "But if you add up the 'Claims Filed' of individual sites in Tennessee, the total is 10,503," Bell said. As of Sept. 30, DOL showed 7,208 claims filed statewide, but individual site totals add up to 10,798. Bell said he can find no reason for the discrepancies.
"This is not the first time the numbers did not agree," he said. On Friday he chose two sites at random -- Ohio and Colorado -- and compared state totals at the beginning of the report with individual site totals.
"For Ohio, the 'Claims Filed' total showed 2,858 vs. 3,727 when individual sites are added up. For Colorado, 'Claims Filed' total showed 3,214 vs. 2,083 when individual sites are added up," he said. "If they can't get something like this right, why are we surprised that some of the more complicated stuff is hard to do?"
Bell believes that expanding the Special Exposure Cohort portion of the act could speed claim settlement for many victims.
"The three gaseous diffusion plants were picked in the beginning as what they called Special Exposure Cohort group. They don't have to go through the dose reconstruction. For the covered cancers, all you have to do is prove that you worked for two years at one of those plants and you're automatically covered."
Bell said a co-worker and close friend of his at Y-12 had colon cancer surgery last year. "Because he worked at least two years at K-25, and the rest of a 25-year career at Y-12, he qualified for Special Exposure Cohort status. The same worker only working at Y-12 would not have that privilege," Bell said. "He got his claim settled in something like six months."