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Posted at 6:29 p.m. EST Wednesday, March 21, 2001

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Labor Department balks at starting new program

Associated Press Writer

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 the program.

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 reimbursement program.

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 available.

``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, D-N.M.

``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 silica-sickened workers.

``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 year.

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: l

Report on compensation issues:

RECA program claims summary:

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