Democratic News

Today, in a rare weekend session, the Senate passed the Defense Authorization conference report. The bill (HR 4200) now goes to President. Once signed, it will set in motion major reforms to the program which compensates workers who became sick due to exposure to toxic substances while working in the nation’s nuclear weapons factories. Responsibility for administering claims under the program will shift from the Department of Energy (DOE) to the Department of Labor. Sick workers will not be required to file through DOE or state workers’ compensation programs, and DOE and its contractors will be removed from any role in deciding the merits of a claim. In addition, the program will be funded automatically, not subject to an annual appropriation, and an Office of Ombudsman will be created within the Labor Department to assist with all matters ranging from claims to appeals. "These changes will be welcomed by the men and women who helped us win the Cold War, but whose jobs made them ill," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said. "Streamlining the claims process and making it easier for the government to write compensation checks will have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of these former atomic workers and their families." Bingaman, Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Pete Domenici (R-NM) led a bipartisan effort in the Senate to reform the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). All three are members of the Energy Committee, which shares jurisdiction on nuclear issues. The committee held three oversight hearings this year on the program. Four years ago, Bingaman teamed with then-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) to author the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. That statute required the Department of Energy to determine whether former DOE employees exposed to certain toxic substances were made ill, and to assist those workers in making their cases to state workers’ compensation boards. Since the law was enacted in October 2000, DOE has spent $95 million on administrative costs, but has rendered determinations by physicians’ panels on fewer than 8 percent of some 23,000 claims as of this month, and as of August 2004 had secured payments for a mere 31 workers.

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