WASHINGTON (AP) -- A
signal that the Bush administration might move agency control
of a compensation program for sick nuclear workers intensified
lobbying by lawmakers and others worried that the change will
The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday
circulated a draft executive order handing the program over to
the Justice Department.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao had asked for such an order,
saying her department did not have the right kind of expertise
to be in charge of distributing medical coverage and $150,000
payments to some of the workers dying of cancer or incurable
lung diseases because of lax Cold War-era safety standards.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, immediately called the White
House and asked Budget Director Mitch Daniels to reconsider.
``Many of these people don't have time to wait. They're
sick now and can't wait while the government tweaks its
bureaucracy,'' Voinovich said.
Daniels listened to a pitch for keeping the program in the
Labor Department but offered no indication of whether he'd
been convinced that putting the Justice Department in charge
would mean a longer wait for workers exposed to health-robbing
levels of radiation, beryllium or silica.
The government weapons' work was done at mills, foundries
and factories around the country. The Energy Department
preliminarily identified 317 sites in 37 states where sick
workers might qualify for benefits.
Most were private companies that did business for the
Energy Department or the Atomic Energy Commission.
The new program is expected to generate about 2,500
successful claims a year, Voinovich said, compared with about
360 successful claims in the ongoing Justice Department-run
program for the miners, uranium millers and victims of
airborne radiation from aboveground nuclear bomb tests.
``The best plan is to send this program through the biggest
pipeline, and I think that's Labor,'' Voinovich said.
The White House said it would have no comment on the draft
order, which is not the administration position unless
President Bush signs it.
In the last week, the White House has received a series of
strongly worded letters from Capitol Hill, some demanding that
the Labor Department be forced to run the new entitlement
program, some agreeing with Chao that the Justice Department's
experience running the miners' compensation program made it
better suited to the task.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said miners in his district had
been complaining for years about Justice Department rules that
made it difficult for them to prove their eligibility for
Putting that department in charge of new eligibility
decisions ``is essentially double-crossing the people who had
been expecting to get the benefits of this legislation,'' he
Many of the uranium miners for whom the Justice
Department-run program was intended are Navajo. A tribal
leader weighed into the dispute on Thursday, asking that both
the new program and the old program be sent to Chao's team.
The law creating the new compensation program offered
medical care to the miners but, ``This move will make the
promised medical benefits for uranium miners another broken
promise,'' wrote Dr. Taylor McKenzie, Navajo Nation vice
The new program already has $60.4 million in start-up
funds, some of which was earmarked for radiation dose
reconstruction by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bulk of the appropriation, though, could be moved to the
Chao had assured senators in February that the Labor
Department was up to the task of running the new program and
meeting a July 31 deadline to be ready to accept applications.
On Thursday, she said she ``soon found that the Department
does not have the experience or expertise in radiation cases
to adequately serve these workers.''
The leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees
support Chao's position. The Senate chairman, Orrin Hatch,
R-Utah, helped start the program to help miners who got sick
while digging uranium ore without protection from radiation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner,
R-Wis., said the uranium miners should not have to apply to
one federal department for lump-sum payments and a second
department for their new medical benefits.
The Justice Department, he said in a letter to Daniels,
``has been diligent and efficient in its responsibilities''
and ``individuals with claims under the Energy Employees
Occupational Compensation Program should be afforded the
expertise and efficiency that the Department of Justice can
provide by administering their program as well.''
On the Net:
Justice Department program's claims summary: http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/awards.htm