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Nuclear Workers Decry Comp Rules

October 10, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nuclear weapons workers complained Wednesday that rules proposed by the Bush administration to facilitate payment of workers’ compensation for on-the-job illnesses would do more harm than good.

``Instead of setting up procedures that will actually make it easier for these workers to file their workman’s comp claims, the DOE has proposed rules that just set up another layer of bureaucracy,″ Gaylon Hanson, an employee at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab, said at a Department of Energy hearing.

The administration said the rules were designed to help compensate thousands of workers, or their survivors, for exposure to toxic substances at Energy Department facilities run by contractors. The workers were not compensated under legislation passed last year that provides medical care and $150,000 to sick Cold War-era nuclear weapons workers exposed to cancer-causing radiation or silica and beryllium. Those two metals cause lung diseases.

Congress told the Energy Department to help workers file claims under state workers’ compensation systems, which would reverse a decades-old policy in which the agency aggressively fought such claims.

The Energy Department is supposed to use independent medical panels to help determine whether workers’ sicknesses resulted from their jobs. The proposal says claims will be forwarded to the panels only if they meet criteria established by state workers’ compensation laws, which vary and often have high burdens of proof and strict statutes of limitations.

Critics said the move apparently was aimed at limiting costs for the Energy Department, since it must reimburse contractors for compensation payments.

``I thought the purpose of the physician panel was to overcome some of the obstacles of the state compensation system and set up uniform standards by which the physicians will determine whether the illness is job-related,″ Hanson said.

Bruce Wood, assistant general counsel of the American Insurance Association, praised the proposed regulations for protecting states’ rights by not allowing the Energy Department to ``federalize state worker compensation determinations.″

The association represents workers’ compensation insurers and has opposed efforts by the federal government to supersede state workers’ compensation laws in other instances.

Still, sick workers had other concerns.

They said they were angry that the proposed rules would order the medical panels to determine whether it is ``more likely than not″ that people’s jobs sickened them. The agency had considered using ``as likely as not.″

That ``moves the goal post beyond where Congress intended by creating a more stringent barrier for victims to overcome,″ said George Jones, a former worker at the government’s Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear reservation, and a government relations representative for the AFL-CIO.

Witnesses also said they were upset that the proposed rules give the Energy Department broad authority to review the medical panels’ decisions, and the rules don’t require the agency to pay for workers’ medical tests.

___

On the Net: Department of Energy Office of Worker Advocacy: http://tis.eh.doe.gov/advocacy/index.html

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