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Posted at 6:57 p.m. EDT Wednesday, September 20, 2000

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New estimates whittle cost of help to sick workers

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday released a reduced estimate of what it might cost to give at least $200,000 to every nuclear worker exposed to health-robbing levels of radiation, beryllium or silica.

The government could expect to pay about $1 billion over five years for a program that includes minimum payments of $200,000 plus medical care, the budget office said.

A Senate-passed compensation program had been expected to cost the government at least $2.4 billion for the first five years.

The Energy Department said about 4,000 of the 600,000 people who worked in the federal weapons complex during the Cold War might qualify for benefits.

The new cost estimate was lower because it assumed Congress would not give lump-sum payments to workers with beryllium sensitivity but not full-blown beryllium disease.

Beryllium is a deadly metal that was used in nuclear weapons production. Exposure can cause an incurable lung disease.

The new financial estimate also assumed Congress would give compensation only to sick workers with at least one year of employment in the nuclear weapons complex, and that Congress would approve a list of eligible cancers.

While the new cost estimate circulated on Capitol Hill, private negotiations concerning ways to additionally economize any new compensation program continued.

House negotiators had proposed limiting compensation to a maximum of $100,000 rather than a minimum of $200,000, said congressional aides who have monitored the talks.

The Senate-passed bill had left the maximum benefit open-ended so workers could recover wages lost because they got too sick to remain on the job until retirement.

``This is certainly not ideal,'' said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, after being briefed on the status of the House-Senate negotiations.

``What's under discussion, one of the things that would be given up is the ability to recover lost wages.''

A Congressional Budget Office estimate of the savings the government could anticipate by capping the workers' payments at $100,000, plus medical care, was not immediately available.

The new financial estimates were released as members of a House-Senate conference committee attempted to wrap up work on the larger military bill that included the Senate-passed compensation. The House on Thursday is scheduled to conduct its first hearing on whether there should be a compensation program.

Dr. David Michaels, the Energy Department's top health official, said he thought the hearing would help build support for conference committee action.

``We expect that to help focus the attention of the House legislators on the plight of the sick workers,'' he said. ``This is our last chance. Next year will be a new administration, a new Congress.''

Negotiators on Wednesday were trying to find a way to trim some other part of the federal budget so they could guarantee permanent, full funding of benefits for the nuclear workers.

Another sticking point involved which agency would be in charge of such a program.

The Senate measure put the Labor Department's Office of Worker Compensation Programs in charge. There was sentiment among some House negotiators to put the Justice Department in charge, since that department processes claims for sick uranium miners.

As part of their negotiations, lawmakers were discussing whether to extend lifetime medical benefits to uranium miners if such benefits also were granted to bomb factory workers.


The bill numbers are H.R. 675, H.R. 3418, H.R. 3478, H.R. 3495, H.R. 4263, H.R. 4398, HR 5189 and SB 2519


On the Net:

Bill texts: http://thomas.loc/. gov

Justice Department's Radiation Exposure Compensation Program:

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