Originally created 06/20/01

Sick-worker payment plan faces doubts



For some people, the assurance that the federal government finally plans to compensate sick nuclear-weapons workers was enough.

For others, a payment will be the only proof.

"If they ever give us anything, I'll believe it when I see it," said Eloise Roberts, a former Savannah River Site worker who attended a public meeting Tuesday in North Augusta about the federal plan to compensate sick workers at SRS and other nuclear-weapons sites.

More than 400 people attended the two meetings about the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

The act, which will take effect July 31, will provide lump-sum payments of $150,000 to some current and former sick workers. Eligible workers also will receive compensation for medical expenses from the date their claims were filed.

Many people who attended Tuesday's meetings indicated that they might file claims because of cancer. Such claims will be screened using guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Jeffrey Nesvet, a deputy associate solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor.

If the department finds a 50 percent or greater chance that a person's cancer was caused by nuclear-weapons work, then that employee or survivors would become eligible for benefits, Mr. Nesvet said.

Some studies suggest that a few SRS workers also might qualify for benefits because of beryllium sensitivity. The condition, similar to an allergy, can develop into chronic beryllium disease, an inflammation of the lungs caused by exposure to beryllium, a metal used in weapons production.

In addition, the Energy Department must help employees found to suffer from work-related illnesses not covered by the federal program, such as asbestosis, Energy Department officials said.

The agency will help those workers file state workers' compensation claims, said Jeff Eagan, a special assistant in the Energy Department's Office of Environment, Safety and Health.

But some attendees questioned whether help truly was on the way. They noted the Energy Department's historic denials that anyone was sickened from weapons work, and the difficulty many employees have faced in receiving complete medical records from the agency and its contractors.

"I don't see any hope for sick people, period," said Freddie Fulmer, an Aiken resident who suffers from a multitude of diseases he says were caused by his work at SRS.

"This is just a way to make people happy, to have another meeting. I have been to meetings like this since 1999."

Eartha Rogers worked at SRS for more than 14 years and said she was unjustly fired shortly after she was diagnosed with lupus. Ms. Rogers plans to file for benefits, but said she is skeptical because officials will determine how much exposure employees suffered, something she says they won't accurately do.

"I can't tell you how many nights I stayed late while they cut our clothes off and scrubbed us down after working," she said.

Federal officials urged critics to give the program a chance. An Energy Department spokesman acknowledged that some workers' medical records were incomplete, but said that shouldn't prevent anyone from applying for help.

"I'm glad the issue is being addressed, and I would encourage people to apply through whatever program through which they can receive benefits," said Bill Taylor, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS.

Curtis Young, who attended the Tuesday evening meeting, suffers from heart maladies and other conditions, problems he says are a result of working at SRS for more than 30 years. He said he is glad the compensation plan now exists, but wishes more people qualified.

"There should be no question about it," Mr. Young said. "The government should compensate people for all those years of exposure."

The Labor and Energy departments will open a resource center in North Augusta to help people seeking to file claims, Mr. Eagan said. The center will be open before July 31, he said.

Getting compensation

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program will provide lump-sum payments of $150,000, plus medical expenses from the date of claim, to some employees sickened from work at nuclear-weapons plants, including Savannah River Site.

In some cases, surviving family members of deceased workers also will be eligible for benefits.

Illnesses covered by the program include radiation-induced cancers and chronic beryllium disease. People diagnosed with beryllium sensitivity will be eligible for medical screenings. If their condition advances into chronic beryllium disease, they will become eligible for the compensation package.

The program also will compensate groups of employees who contracted particular illnesses from work at gaseous diffusion plants, nuclear test sites or uranium facilities.

To apply for compensation, employees or their survivors must file a claim. People can request claim forms by calling a toll-free hot line, (866) 888-3322. The forms also are available at the U.S. Department of Labor's Web site, www.dol.gov.

Claims must include:

A history of the illness or condition

A physical examination and its findings

Results from clinical laboratory tests

A diagnosis and the date it was first documented

Completed claims should be mailed to: Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act; U.S. Department of Labor; P.O. Box 77918; Washington, DC 20013-7918.

The Energy Department also is obligated to assist employees who have work-related illnesses not covered by the federal program, such as asbestosis. In such cases, the Energy Department will help workers file state workers' compensation claims. For more information, call the Energy Department's toll-free number at (877) 447-9756.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Other resources

The Augusta Building Trades Medical Screening Program for SRS can provide free health screenings to current and former construction and maintenance workers at the site. For more information, call (800) 866-9663.

The SRS Former Production Worker Health Project can provide free health screenings to former production workers at the site. For more information, call (888) 286-2588.

Staff Writer Teresa Wood contributed to this report.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.



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