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Posted at 6:29 p.m. EST Thursday, March 22, 2001

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More senators weigh in against Labor Department proposal

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senators who painstakingly negotiated to get money and medical care for contaminated nuclear workers were trying Thursday to convince the secretary of labor they understand what has to be done to make the new program work.

Congress gave the Labor Department $60.4 million to set up the program, but Labor Secretary Chao doesn't want to do it. She has asked the White House to give that responsibility to another agency.

That has alarmed those mostly closely involved in creating the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., one of the main authors of the law creating the new entitlement, sent Chao a letter laying out the reasons lawmakers want her agency to have control.

The new program was modeled after a large worker compensation program that the Labor Department already runs, he wrote.

The law's authors ``believe that the Department of Labor is uniquely suited to administer the energy employees' program because it has vast experience in helping injured workers and a network of regional offices across the country where DOL claims personnel administer payments for injuries, illnesses and medical benefits related to the workplace,'' he wrote.

Chao wants the Justice Department to take control of the new program. In a letter to the White House and again in a telephone conversation with Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Chao said she believes the Justice Department has better experience in this type of program.

``She believes it can be handled more efficiently at DOJ because they have the infrastructure,'' said Labor Department spokesman Stuart Roy.

Justice administers a program that gives one-time payments to sick uranium miners, millers and people who were downwind of nuclear tests. Eligibility is determined by the length of time people spent at any of the affected places.

If Chao succeeds in moving the new program out of her department, it would mean that workers who contracted chronic beryllium disease while on the government payroll would ask the Labor Department for benefits. Those who contracted while employed by a government contractor would have to go elsewhere to have their claims evaluated.

Thompson's letter asked for an efficient program to do right by ``brave, hardworking men and women who helped this nation win the Cold War'' and were put in harm's way.

An aide to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that senator was supporting Thompson's effort. In addition, a bipartisan group of House members, Voinovich and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, sent letters lobbying to keep the Labor Department in charge of the new program.


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