Sick Workers Seek Bush Help

Friday, March 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A signal that the Bush administration might move agency control of a compensation program for sick nuclear workers intensified lobbying by lawmakers and others worried that the change will delay payments.

The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday circulated a draft executive order handing the program over to the Justice Department.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao had asked for such an order, saying her department did not have the right kind of expertise to be in charge of distributing medical coverage and $150,000 payments to some of the workers dying of cancer or incurable lung diseases because of lax Cold War-era safety standards.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, immediately called the White House and asked Budget Director Mitch Daniels to reconsider. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said he would be calling Daniels, as well.

``Many of these people don't have time to wait. They're sick now and can't wait while the government tweaks its bureaucracy,'' Voinovich said.

Daniels listened to a pitch for keeping the program in the Labor Department but offered no indication of whether he'd been convinced that putting the Justice Department in charge would mean a longer wait for workers exposed to health-robbing levels of radiation, beryllium or silica.

The government weapons' work was done at mills, foundries and factories around the country. The Energy Department preliminarily identified 317 sites in 37 states where sick workers might qualify for benefits.

Most were private companies that did business for the Energy Department or the Atomic Energy Commission.

The new program is expected to generate about 2,500 successful claims a year, Voinovich said, compared with about 360 successful claims in the ongoing Justice Department-run program for the miners, uranium millers and victims of airborne radiation from aboveground nuclear bomb tests.

``The best plan is to send this program through the biggest pipeline, and I think that's Labor,'' Voinovich said.

The White House said it would have no comment on the draft order, which is not the administration position unless President Bush signs it.

In the last week, the White House has received a series of strongly worded letters from Capitol Hill, some demanding that the Labor Department be forced to run the new entitlement program, some agreeing with Chao that the Justice Department's experience running the miners' compensation program made it better suited to the task.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said miners in his district had been complaining for years about Justice Department rules that made it difficult for them to prove their eligibility for benefits.

Putting that department in charge of new eligibility decisions ``is essentially double-crossing the people who had been expecting to get the benefits of this legislation,'' he said.

Many of the uranium miners for whom the Justice Department-run program was intended are Navajo. A tribal leader weighed into the dispute on Thursday, asking that both the new program and the old program be sent to Chao's team.

The law creating the new compensation program offered medical care to the miners but, ``This move will make the promised medical benefits for uranium miners another broken promise,'' wrote Dr. Taylor McKenzie, Navajo Nation vice president.

The new program already has $60.4 million in start-up funds, some of which was earmarked for radiation dose reconstruction by the Department of Health and Human Services. The bulk of the appropriation, though, could be moved to the Justice Department.

Chao had assured senators in February that the Labor Department was up to the task of running the new program and meeting a July 31 deadline to be ready to accept applications. On Thursday, she said she ``soon found that the Department does not have the experience or expertise in radiation cases to adequately serve these workers.''

The leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees support Chao's position. The Senate chairman, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, helped start the program to help miners who got sick while digging uranium ore without protection from radiation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the uranium miners should not have to apply to one federal department for lump-sum payments and a second department for their new medical benefits.

The Justice Department, he said in a letter to Daniels, ``has been diligent and efficient in its responsibilities'' and ``individuals with claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Compensation Program should be afforded the expertise and efficiency that the Department of Justice can provide by administering their program as well.''