Udall nuke-worker bill stalls; another widow denied compensation

Boulder resident Bo Fellinger is disgusted. She recently discovered that the Department of Labor yet again denied her husband Michael’s claim to compensation for chronic lung disease. Fellinger doesn’t have a good word to say about the department or its Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICPA). Her husband, a grad student at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, died of lung failure in 2008 at age 62, his claim shuttled back and forth among bureaucrats for nearly four years.

A nuke worker monitors waste in South Korea.

“The program strikes me as some stupid headless animal,” says Fellinger of the red tape she has endured. “Everyone involved seems to be standing in a circle, handing things around to the next person without taking any responsibility for it. The buck never stops anywhere.”

Signed into law in 2000, the EEOICPA was designed to compensate former nuclear workers with lump-sum payments and medical benefits for illnesses linked to their exposures to radiation and toxic substances associated with their work. The program has instead created such layers of bureaucracy that it has become the target of criticism not only from former nuclear workers struggling to get compensation for years spent handling the dangerous material, but from advocacy groups, medical experts and even the senators who authored the original legislation.

Reform legislation stuck in committee

Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s Charlie Wolf Nuclear Workers Compensation Act, which would more directly address the frustrations of claimants like Fellinger, has been waiting for more than a year in the U.S. Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee.

The bill is not scheduled for hearing at this point and is considered by Senate insiders as unlikely to get off the ground without further support from states with significant nuclear worker populations, which include Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington.

On Monday Udall called once again for passage of the Act after learning the nuclear worker for whom the bill was named, Charlie Wolf, had yet again been denied his claim. Wolf died last year, and his claim has now been pending eight years.

“Charlie and workers like him across the country are patriots and veterans of the Cold War,” Udall said in a prepared statement. “I had hoped that with a new Administration and a new Congress, things would change, and that’s why I’m again calling for passage of my bill as soon as possible. It’s long past time to do right by these workers.”

Colorado U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis joined Udall in support of the legislation.

Although enacting the law as soon as possible is too late for men like Wolf and Michael Fellinger, it’s not too late to compensate their families.

Michael Fellinger worked as a graduate student in high energy physics at the Ames Laboratory 1960s and early 1970s. He produced lab equipment both for the Ames Laboratory and another Department of Energy site, Argonne Laboratories in Illinois. According to his claim documents, Fellinger was likely exposed to beryllium, known to cause chronic lung disease. He became ill in 1996, and his health rapidly deteriorated into lung disease, lung infections and constant hospitalizations. He contracted esophageal cancer, another illness linked to toxic metals exposure, in 2003. The first letter from the government denying his claim arrived the day he died.

Defending mistakes

“I am shocked,” said Dr. Laurence Fuortes, director of the Former Worker Screening Program at the University of Iowa who has been advocating Michael Fellinger’s case and whose work is used to determine eligibility for the federal program. “This pattern of defending mistakes is simply bizarre.”

Fuortes believes he has adequately proven that Michael Fellinger’s lung disease was caused by his exposures at the Ames Laboratory, through accepted medical literature that supports his diagnoses, through site data that confirms the presence of the toxins, through statistics showing a high rate of occupational lung disease among former Ames Lab workers and through cases similar to Michael’s which were accepted. The Department of Labor, Fuortes said, refuses to consider any of them.

“This has been reviewed by three contract medical consultants from the DOL, and none of them are experts in occupational lung disease,” Fuortes said. “The Department of Labor is defending these denials through any argument they can come up with.”

Unless Fellinger and Fuortes can provide any new evidence to suggest the Department of Labor consultants are wrong, she has exhausted her appeals for review.

“There isn’t any new evidence, and they know it. And old evidence should have been more than adequate,” said Fellinger.

A claim without the claimant

Fellinger says she is “deeply grateful” for Fuortes’ assistance navigating the bureaucratic tangle of the program.

“I couldn’t do this without his help,” she said. “He is a force of nature.”

Despite the ongoing claim struggles, she admits she tries to think of the reason behind it as little as possible.

“Michael’s death, the manner of his death, was very damaging to me,” she said. “His last hours were horrific.”

But her husband’s attitude, had he survived his lung disease, would be on the side of humor.

“His reaction to the denial would be something witty and cutting,” she said. “He had a very dry sense of humor and an appreciation of the ridiculous.”

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Laura Millsaps

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