Frustration builds over slow progress of Udall nuke workers bill

Lack of Senate action on a bill that would help sick former nuclear workers get medical benefits they’ve been promised is beginning to frustrate advocates and the bill’s sponsor, Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

Mark Udall (rmi, flickr)

The Charlie Wolf Nuclear Worker’s Compensation Act would level inequities in the Department of Labor program designed to compensate former nuclear workers who became ill due to their exposure to dangerous levels of radiation and toxic substances while working at Department of Energy sites and contract facilities. Many former workers call the program inherently unfair.

“I share the frustration of claimants who are waiting for improvements to the compensation program — every moment this bill sits literally impacts the lives of people who are very sick,” Udall said. “I’ve been working on this for many years, and the slow pace has me very frustrated.”

Shouldering some of the responsibility for Udall’s frustrations, critics say, is U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin was one of the authors of the original legislation creating the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program in 2000. He is now the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), where the Charlie Wolf Nuclear Worker’s Compensation Act has been awaiting action for more than a year.

The Charlie Wolf bill, introduced by Udall in March of last year, is designed to address some of the failures of the EEOICP, which former workers say tangles them in years of bureaucracy, and in two out of three cases results in a denied claim.

A GAO report released earlier this year brought the bill back to the forefront, with recommendations for improvement.

A spokeswoman from Harkin’s office said his staff continues to examine the GAO report and explore the best ways to implement some of the recommendations, and a hearing on the program sometime this year is a possibility.

“Sen. Harkin also looks forward to seeing Sen. Udall build support for his bill to expand the program,” she said in a statement this week.

Last month Udall, along with U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, both Democrats from Colorado, made a very public call for the bill’s passage.

Some advocates and insiders, however, think the bill could be too controversial for some senators to get on board with passage.

Dr. Maureen Merritt, an occupational health physician who assisted claimants and advocated for reform, said she helped Udall’s office author the meat of the bill. She believes the legislation is essentially being shelved, at least for the moment.

“To do the changes that this bill is asking for would take some real courage,” she said.

Merritt considers costs containment to be the biggest factor in disagreement over the bill. Passage of the bill would include workers in what is called “special exposure cohorts,” automatically extending benefits to them without the need to prove the levels of their exposure or details of their job duties to qualify.

“It’s controversial. The GAO study really didn’t get a grasp on costs, other than to say administrative costs were as high on some claims as 30 percent. That’s atrocious,” Merritt said. “But then granting all workers special exposure cohort status would open the floodgate of dollar amounts paid out in compensation and medical care. Which is more costly? It’s a big question.”

Udall doesn’t dispute that the Charlie Wolf Bill may have a big climb out of committee.

“Unfortunately the reality is that there’s opposition to it, and in the Senate that makes the hurdles for getting a hearing higher. But I still believe we can get it passed. I’m working every channel available to move the bill forward — that may include trying to get it done piece by piece,” Udall said.

Terrie Barrie, an advocate for nuclear workers through the Alliance of Nuclear Worker’s Advocacy Groups (ANWAG), said her organization is working with Udall’s office and other legislators to draft just such a piece — an independent medical oversight board to review the medical decisions rendered by the EEOICP.

Such a board was recommended by the GAO in their March report. With claimants angry over often arbitrary or even incorrect medical decisions, and since blanket coverage a sticking point with the broader bill, “we really, really need that review board,” Barrie said.

Though Barrie believes establishing an oversight board would result in other issues being resolved administratively, the program still needs legislators to step up.

“If I could say anything to Sen. Harkin, it would be, ‘Please start holding hearings.’ There are enough issues raised in the GAO report that warrant Congressional concern,” Barrie said.

Whether changes come one at a time or through passage of the Charlie Wolf bill, Udall and other advocates for EEOICP are intent on gathering wider support.

“I’m hopeful that my Senate colleagues will ultimately agree that the workers who sacrificed for our country during the Cold War deserve a better compensation system – one that isn’t blocked by bureaucratic red tape that forces patients to fight the government for benefits they were promised,” Udall said.

Laura Millsaps writes for the Iowa Independent.

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