Originally created 09/21/04

Proposal may speed sick claims



AIKEN - A proposal to have the Labor Department take charge of the Department of Energy's problem-plagued compensation program has gained bipartisan support in Congress.

The change, which could mean faster results for sick workers at DOE facilities, including Savannah River Site, was passed by the Senate in July. At the time, the department had paid only a handful of the 25,000 claims filed since legislation creating the program for energy employees was passed in 2000.

The amendment is set for review by a joint Senate-House committee, and members of both chambers are pushing for it to pass.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who co-wrote the amendment with 13 other senators, wrote Sept. 13 that "we believe that there are very serious problems with how DOE has executed its responsibilities."

The letter, addressed to Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, its ranking Democrat, explained that reform would "speed claims processing" because the Labor Department has proven more effective by "successfully processing over 95 percent of its 55,000 claims."

Workers can file claims with the Energy or Labor departments, or both, depending on their illness.

On Sept. 10, almost 50 members of the House signed a similar letter sent to House leaders.

"These workers have waited years for this program to be administered competently," Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who signed the letter, said in a statement. "By moving it to DOL, we can finally ensure that America's Cold War workers get the care and compensation they have been promised."

Energy officials say the agency hasn't had enough doctors to perform medical screenings and has had difficulties locating worker records to verify claims. As of last week, the department had paid $692,000 to 12 of the 3,650 SRS claimants who had applied for help, said Bill Taylor, a department spokesman at the site.

"They're trying to improve it every way they can," he said last week.

The department estimates that it would take $300 million in new appropriations to pay benefits under the proposed amendment, according to a letter Mr. Bunning sent Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Aug. 30. The senator chided him for "inaccurate representations" on the proposed reform.

"The DOE has provided no authority for its estimate, which creates sticker shock rather than inform the discussion," he wrote.

The department's program also took heat in a report by the General Accounting Office, a congressional investigative agency, which said in May that the department hadn't done enough to keep claimants informed.

Independent oversight groups also are pushing for change.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.