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
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,
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.