April 01, 2016

Udall, Alexander: Sick Nuclear Workers Deserve Better

Department of Labor should delay new rule that could jeopardize benefits for those who worked at Cold War-era sites

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) this week urged the U.S. Department of Labor to delay a new rule that could make it more difficult for sick nuclear workers who served at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Y-12 and other Cold War-era nuclear sites to get benefits they deserve under the department's Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

"It's shameful that so many Americans - including many New Mexicans - who contributed to our nation's security have spent the last years of their lives fighting both their illness and government red tape," Udall said. "Too often, former nuclear workers die waiting for compensation they never receive. I have serious concerns that the Department of Labor's latest rule change could make it even harder for them to prove their case. We should be getting sick workers the compensation they deserve, not adding steps to an already burdensome, bureaucratic process."

"At the peak of the Cold War, nearly 600,000 workers across the country - including tens of thousands of Tennesseans - were involved in the research and production of nuclear weapons. These men and women worked with little-understood hazardous materials to build and maintain our nation's nuclear defense and keep our country safe," Alexander said. "The Department of Labor is proposing to put in place rules that could make it harder for these workers, many of whom are sick and elderly, to get the medical benefits they deserve. We think the department should first address potential problems with its operation of the program before the department adds more burdens to these workers."

In a letter sent yesterday, Udall and Alexander asked the Department of Labor to first consider findings from a March 2016 Government Accountability Office report that found the department provided inaccurate information to some exposure victims, improperly filed some claims paperwork and failed to consistently note when it checked victims' claims with updated symptoms information. Udall and Alexander also argue that before adopting the new rule the department should wait for input from an Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health for the nuclear worker's program, which was created by legislation in 2015 to increase oversight.

New Mexico has nearly 27,000 health claims - filed by more than 10,000 individual workers or their survivors - under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. In Tennessee, more than 40,000 claims have been filed by more than 16,000 workers.


The full text of the letter is available here and below:

The Honorable Thomas Perez
Secretary
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Secretary Perez:

We write to express strong concerns about the proposed rule regarding changes to the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOCIPA) published on November 18, 2015 (RIN 1240-AA08). We request that you delay implementation of the proposed rule until DOL has incorporated the findings of the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) report on Energy Employees Compensation (GAO-16-74) and the Advisory Board on Toxic Substance and Worker Health (Advisory Board) is operational.

DOL has proposed changes to at least 72 provisions of EEOICPA, some of which could adversely impact claims adjudication. It was premature to propose such changes before the GAO report on improving the program was released before the public had a chance to review the results of that report and before the Advisory Board was selected and seated. It is important that the new Advisory Board be in place and has ample opportunity to review and consult on the proposed changes before the rule is finalized.

The men and women who were exposed to radiation and toxic substances at our nation's nuclear facilities deserve to have their claims evaluated in a fair and equitable manner. DOL's proposed rule change may increase the burden on claimants with little or no explanation. While some changes memorialize existing practice, others have raised concerns, including modifying a claimants' ability to change their treating physician which arguably provides DOL more discretion to exclude providers, but also takes away the right of a patient to be seen by doctor of their choice. Under the proposed rule, qualified claimants also risk losing coverage if they are too sick to travel for second medical opinions or represent themselves at administrative hearings. Such a requirement increases the burden on those least able to care for themselves.

We strongly urge DOL to delay the proposed rule until the Advisory Board is operational, and to allow DOL and the Advisory Board sufficient time to study and incorporate GAO report recommendations.

If you have any questions about this request, please have your staff contact John Rivard or Molly Conway on Senator Alexander's staff at (202) 224-4944 or Michele Jacquez-Ortiz on Senator Udall's staff at (202) 224-6621. Thank you for your attention to this matter.