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The U.S. Senate today passed an amendment, cosponsored by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to fix the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. This change was necessary because the Department of Energy has repeatedly failed to process claims and compensate ill workers from sites such as the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state. Today's agreement will move the program to the Department of Labor, which has far more experience in expediting claims from workers.

The amendment fulfills the promise that Congress made in 2000 to provide payment of benefits to those who were made sick while building our nation’s nuclear weapons.

Senator Murray said today:

"I'm proud today to support this important amendment. Workers at Hanford and other nuclear sites around the country dedicated their lives to improving the defense of our nation while at the same time, without their knowledge, putting those same lives at risk. Exposure to harmful materials has left thousands of people sick, but the Energy Department has simply failed to act with the speed and care necessary to meet our obligation to these workers. Many of these workers are dying. We can wait no longer. We must compensate them, and do it now.

"The Department of Energy has failed in this effort. It's long past time for these claims to be processed. I'm appalled that $95 million in administrative funding has led to the processing of only four claims by the Department.

"This is a major step forward for workers who deserve to be fairly compensated for the illnesses contracted while working on behalf of our nation. Today, I hope that our action begins to pay these honorable patriots back for all of their hard work and dedication."

A summary of the amendment is included below:

The EEOICPA Reform Act of 2004

Bunning-Bingaman S. Amend 3437 to the FY 05 Defense Authorization Act

The Bunning-Bingaman Amendment solves two key problems currently being experienced by claimants filing with the Energy Department under Subtitle D of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA): slow processing of claims and lack of a payer for all eligible claims.

EEOICPA was enacted as part of the Defense Authorization Act in 2000 to provide compensation to employees of the Department of Energy and its contractors who were exposed to radiation or other toxic substances and who became ill. DOE was assigned responsibility for the implementation of Subtitle D of EEOICPA. Subtitle B responsibilities under EEOICPA were assigned to DOL.

Subtitle D required DOE to review evidence to determine if a worker’s illness was caused by exposure to toxic substances in their DOE work. Claimants with positive findings from the DOE physician panels were to be assisted by DOE in filing for and receiving state workers’ compensation benefits due to them. Unfortunately, DOE has been processing these claims very slowly. GAO estimates that at least 20-33% of valid claims will not be paid in the current DOE process. DOE has not been able to say which valid claims will have payers. DOE has offered no solution to the payer problem, and have contended that identifying and assuring payers is not among their EEOICPA responsibilities.

More than 24,000 workers and survivors have filed claims with the DOE for assistance during the past 4 years. 80% of the claims are in very early stages of development or are not being developed at all. Only 3% of eligible cases have gone through the DOE physician panel process which provides the claimants with the evidence they need to file claims in state workers’ compensation systems. Through March 24, 2004, DOE received about $95 million in administrative funds. According to the DOE however, only four eligible claimants have received compensation. This performance falls far short of the mark.

DOE’s claims processing and DOE’s ability to assure payment of valid claims have been the source of intense scrutiny by GAO and the Congress in recent months. There have been three Senate hearings, and the GAO identified serious flaws in the DOE claims operation and recommended DOL as an option for assuring claims payment.

The Bunning-Bingaman Amendment transfers claims processing operations to the Department of Labor, one of the largest and most efficient claims operations in the country. DOL is already processing thousands of similar claims under Subtitle B of EEOICPA and has already processed more than 90% of their claims. The Bunning-Bingaman amendment assures that benefits due to workers or survivors will be paid according to the state laws covering the worker or survivor. The payments will be made directly by DOL to the worker or survivor. Benefits will be paid with appropriated funds, just as they would have been had DOE performed as expected. The Department of Labor’s operation of this program is likely to be significantly more efficient and less expensive than DOE’s current claims processing operation. CBO anticipates only minor costs as a result of this transfer of operations to DOL. The Amendment assures continued operations and a smooth transfer of responsibilities from DOE to DOL. In addition, the Amendment fixes an oversight in EEOICPA that currently denies eligibility to workers who were exposed to radiation from residual contamination that remained at facilities that were not fully decontaminated after weapons production activities ceased. The Amendment would enable workers employed at such facilities to apply for benefits under EEOICPA.

The Bunning-Bingaman amendment fulfills the promise that Congress made in 2000 to provide payment of benefits under Subtitle D to those who were made sick while building our nation’s nuclear weapons.