WASHINGTON (AP) -- In
just four months, the government is supposed to start taking
applications from job-sickened nuclear workers eligible for
special federal compensation.
Congress gave the Labor Department $60.4 million to set up
But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao doesn't want to
do it, and lawmakers with ailing constituents said Wednesday
they're worried about people with incurable illnesses having
to wait too long for compensation if Chao gets her way.
``Cancer is killing my constituents right now,'' said Rep.
Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. ``This will, in my judgment,
inevitably result in a delay.''
In a letter to the White House, Chao suggested that the
Justice Department be put in charge of the Energy Employees
Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
Chao's letter said that the department has the experience
to do the job because it handles a small program giving
one-time payments to uranium miners, millers and people who
lived downwind of nuclear test sites.
``To create a new infrastructure when DOJ already has the
tools to effectively implement and administer this program is
duplicative,'' she wrote.
Labor Department spokesman Stuart Roy said Chao wants to
take advantage of special expertise at the Justice Department.
``It's a very complex issue dealing with long-term exposure
to radiation,'' he said. ``She believes it can be handled more
efficiently at DOJ because they have the infrastructure.''
Ohio Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine sent the White
House a letter explaining that the Radiation Exposure
Compensation Act (RECA) payments handled by the Justice
Department are one-time apology payments, not a medical claims
The Labor Department, they noted, reviews medical benefit
claims for federal workers, and also has a network of regional
offices staffed with claims-takers.
``The Department of Justice does not have the necessary
infrastructure or expertise to administer this program
effectively,'' the two Republicans wrote. ``In fact, at a
congressional hearing last year, DOJ officials testified that
they were not equipped to administer this program.''
The Justice Department has three attorneys, two supervisors
and 14 payment clerks running the RECA program. Its staff has
received about 9,000 claims over the past decade.
In contrast, the Labor Department runs a worker
compensation program for government employees that has a staff
of more than 900 and considered more than 19,000 wage-loss
claims in 1999, the latest year for which figures were
``Giving this new responsibility to the folks at RECA would
clearly overwhelm the system and lead to a lot of
dissatisfaction with the program,'' said Rep. Jeff Bingamon,
``They don't have a good record in administering the RECA
program. There have been a lot of complaints -- well-founded
complaints, in my opinion.''
A bipartisan group of House members with constituents
suffering from serious lung diseases or cancer as a result of
their nuclear weapons-related work also weighed in.
The Labor Department ``was selected to run this program
because this agency has administered a number of other federal
worker compensation programs for as long as 90 years,'' wrote
the lawmakers from districts with beryllium- radiation- or
``We want to underscore that this proposed change is at
odds with congressional intent and would assign a massive set
of responsibilities to an agency that lacks the infrastructure
to manage these claims.''
That letter, circulated by Strickland and Rep. Ed Whitfield
of Kentucky, was signed by Republicans Jim Gibbons of Nevada
and Zack Wamp of Tennessee, plus Democrats Mark Udall of
Colorado; John LaFalce of New York; Tom Udall of New Mexico;
Ken Lucas of Kentucky; Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.
The Labor Department got the $60.4 million appropriation
because it was viewed as the government's expert on
occupational illness and compensation programs.
It handles worker compensation claims for federal
employees, overseas employees of U.S. military bases, coal
miners seeking compensation for black lung disease, harbor
workers and outer continental shelf workers.
The nuclear workers program was created by Congress last
It was approved as an entitlement, or mandatory spending
program -- with guaranteed payouts, just like Social Security,
Medicare, food stamps, veteran pensions and student loans.
On the Net:
President Clinton's executive order implementing
compensation law: http://www.whitehouse.gov/library/hot--releases/December--7--2000--6.htm
Report on compensation issues: http://www.eh.doe.gov/benefits
RECA program claims summary: http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/awards.htm