Friday, June 25, 2004

Bill gives ill nuclear workers new hope for compensation

By Greg Wright
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Ill nuclear weapons workers who have not received government compensation checks have new hope from the Senate.

The Energy Department received about 25,000 claims from workers and families as of June 18. Here are the states with the most claims. States listed are where the former workers live now:
Tennessee: 4,913.
Kentucky: 2,995.
South Carolina: 2,555.
New Mexico: 1,876.
Washington: 1,768.
Colorado: 1,557.
Ohio: 1,245.
Idaho: 1,075.
Georgia: 908.
Florida: 814.
Source: Department of Energy
The Senate voted 97-0 late Wednesday for a 2005 defense bill that includes a provision to move a controversial worker program to the Labor Department from the Energy Department. Lawmakers such as Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, complain that the Energy Department is dragging its feet helping thousands of workers get state workers' compensation checks and Labor would do a better job.

Congress created programs in both the Energy and Labor departments in 2000 to help Cold War-era workers who helped manufacture nuclear weapons. Many claim they got cancer, lung diseases or other ailments from radiation and toxic chemical exposure.

But as of June 18, the Energy Department had completed one in 10 of about 25,000 worker claims it began processing. Only 247 claims have been approved.

Voinovich and Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the Labor Department can process workers' compensation claims faster because it has more experience.

"My amendment will remove the red tape," Bunning said when the provision was approved earlier this month.

Labor already helps qualified workers get $150,000 reparation checks and full medical coverage. As of June 17, the department had finished about half of its 55,289 claims.

"Agencies have had a chance to make it work. But there are clearly some serious problems that need legislative fixes, and this legislation will make the needed changes so workers can get the compensation they deserve," Voinovich said.

But workers have no guarantee of getting promised help. The Bush administration is against moving the Energy program to the Labor Department because the two agencies still must work together after the switch to process claims, and the program switch is not in the House version of the defense bill.

The administration could persuade lawmakers to strip the provision from the $447 billion defense bill when House and Senate negotiators craft a single, compromise version later this year.

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