Boulder nuke worker widow scores new hope from Harkin

Boulder resident Bo Fellinger’s husband Michael worked with nuclear material at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa during the cold war and died of lung disease in 2008. The cause of his death was very likely exposure to radiation. Like so many cold war nuclear workers, however, Fellinger’s claims for compensation from the government have been denied repeatedly in a process lawmakers working for change in the matter like Colorado’s Mark Udall have called deeply frustrating and a source of national shame.

The Fellinger claim may now act as a lever through which change to the process might finally come and bring sick people and their families redress. In a letter sent Monday, Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin asked the Department of Labor to reopen the Fellinger case and send it to an independent third party for review.

“I believe that this case unfortunately illustrates flaws in the administration of the … program both with regard to the qualification of the District Medical Consultants (DMCs) and with overall adjudication of similar claims,” Harkin says in the letter. District medical consultants are the doctors contracted by the Department of Labor’s Office of Worker’s Compensation Program to offer opinions on disputed claims.

“This is good,” said Bo Fellinger of the Harkin letter. “It’s a clear encapsulation of everything that has happened thus far. I think this is going to be very helpful.”

The Iowa Independent’s Laura Millsaps has owned the story of the Fellinger case and she reports the developments today:

“I’m thrilled about this letter,” said Dr. Laurence Fuortes, Fellinger’s medical advocate and director of the University of Iowa Former Worker Medical Screening Program. “It very eloquently and humanely states a rationale behind reopening this claim. I hope Shelby Hallmark is willing and able to meet the request.”

Fellinger worked for the Ames Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., and the Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., for periods from 1967 through 1972, where he would have been exposed to a host of toxins, including beryllium, thorium, and asbestos. He first became ill with pulmonary fibrosis in 1993, and contracted esophageal cancer in 2003. While still alive, he applied for compensation for his illnesses through the EEOICP. The first letter denying his claim arrived on the day of his death in 2008, and has been repeatedly denied since then.

Two weeks ago, Fellinger’s widow received yet another blow to her hopes to reopen the case in the form of a letter from the policy branch chief of the EEOICP, Michael Chance.

Despite providing the opinions of four doctors, including one who is a pulmonary pathologist with Mayo Clinic, the Department of Labor found that the medical opinions, “do not constitute new medical evidence which would allow for reopening,” Chance’s letter to Fellinger said.

This latest in a long string of denials was also mailed to Fuortes, who contacted The Iowa Independent about Chance’s letter last week.

“This case has devolved into a pissing match,” Fuortes said. “This case has nothing to do with medical science or justice.”

Colorado’s Mark Udall has been a champion in the Senate for the sick workers and their families. Udall introduced the Charlie Wolf Nuclear Worker’s Compensation Act in March of last year. It is designed to level inequities in the Department of Labor compensation program.

“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 in May. “I’ve been working on this for many years, and the slow pace has me very frustrated.”

Critics say Harkin shoulders some of the responsibility for Udall’s frustrations. 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 stalled for more than a year.

With his engagement in the issue and the Fellinger case in particular, Harkin would now seem to be the biggest single motivator on the issue.

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