Originally created 04/01/04

Program fails to compensate injured nuclear weapons plant workers



WASHINGTON -- Nearly four years after Congress passed a law to help ill nuclear weapons plant workers, the government has devoted $74 million to a compensation program that so far has sent only one check, worth $15,000, to one worker.

The Energy Department told lawmakers during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy Committee that it needs more time and money to do a better job.

Some lawmakers instead suggested turning the program over to the Labor Department, which already is running another program for compensating weapons plant workers exposed to radiation.

"Four years and one claim, that's wrong," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.

Energy Department officials told lawmakers one worker from Washington state has received $15,000 in compensation so far. Officials did not reveal the worker's name.

Of the roughly 22,000 eligible workers who have filed for help, only 372 have received word about whether evidence shows their illnesses are job-related, according to the department.

Robert Card, the department's undersecretary, said the agency hopes to quicken the program's pace if Congress gives it another $33 million atop the roughly $26 million being spent on the program this year.

Card said doing that and lifting a cap on fees paid to doctors who assess whether workers' illnesses are job-related would enable several hundred workers to get compensation payments before the end of the year.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the Energy Department was overpaying New Orleans-based Science and Engineering Associates, the contractor it hired to run the program. As an example, Grassley said, the company is billing the government $90 per hour for nurses who help process claims, an amount he said is more than twice what the Labor Department is paying for the same work.

"Only in a government contract can people make so much money and perform so poorly," Grassley said.

He said the company refused to provide him and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, details of its expenses in administering the program.

Company CEO Bobby Savoie said in an interview with The Associated Press that the information Grassley was seeking is privileged. He said the company could be sued for publicly releasing such personnel data.

"We kindly explained that in a letter to Sen. Grassley's staff, who then intentionally misled that hearing by stating that we were being uncooperative," Savoie said. He said his company has been a government contractor for 22 years and has opened up its books to government auditors on many occasions.

Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a private watchdog group, said the Energy Department had spent $16.7 million on the contract through last November and continues to spend about $1 million a month with the firm. Savoie said he was not familiar with the specific figures.

The 2000 law directed the Energy Department to help former workers submit claims with state workers' compensation authorities instead of directing its contractors to fight them. Ultimately, the government is the one on the hook for paying whatever claims are awarded.

Most of the claims are from people who worked for contractors at Energy Department facilities in nine states: Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.

On the Net:

Energy Department's Office of Worker Advocacy: http://tis.eh.doe.gov/advocacy/