October 23, 2007
“There are serious problems with the implementation of EEOICPA, which became law in 2000, that have prevented thousands of former workers at the Nevada Test Site and other nuclear facilities from receiving compensation for work related illnesses, including cancer,” said Reid. “This is an important issue to Nevadans. We must do more to help our Cold War veterans. I am committed to doing all I can to provide them the compensation they deserve and the medical benefits they need. I will not rest until this issue is adequately addressed.”
This hearing and Reid’s testimony will push the Department of Labor and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to improve their procedures for reviewing claims for compensation, and identify ways to provide more sick atomic weapons workers with the compensation they deserve.
Reid’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.
Statement of Senator Harry Reid
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
EEOICPA: Is the Program Claimant Friendly for Our Cold War Heroes?
Thank you Chairman Bingaman for holding this hearing today. Securing compensation for sick atomic weapons workers is something that we’ve been working on together for a long time. There is no doubt that our country has made progress over the past decade. But, the energy employees compensation program is still failing thousands of our Cold War veterans who now have cancer and other illnesses. We must fix this program, and I think this hearing is a step in the right direction.
Eight years ago, I joined my colleagues to pass bipartisan legislation to recognize the sacrifices made by atomic weapons workers and help them live with terrible diseases caused by exposure to radiation and other hazardous materials. We passed this law, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, to provide workers and their survivors with compensation and medical reimbursement in some cases. Sadly, eight years after EEOICPA was created, I still hear from many Nevadans who have cancer caused by their service on government nuclear weapons programs. They tell me that their sacrifices are still being ignored. I am confident we can begin to find some solutions for them today.
Of nearly 117,500 covered applications – covered applications are from applicants whose employment and sicknesses are covered by EEOICPA – fewer than 35,000 have received compensation nationally. That is less than 30 percent. The situation is even worse for atomic weapons workers in
When EEOICPA was crafted, we knew that the Department of Energy did not consistently monitor atomic weapons workers for exposure to radiation. These classified programs were highly secretive, and over the years records have been lost or even thrown away. It is also nearly impossible to estimate radiation exposure from some nuclear tests, and monitoring for certain cancer-causing radionuclides was simply inadequate. Information about nuclear testing is held so tightly, it’s sometimes difficult to verify workers’ stories.
And I’ve heard the same terrible stories time after time. For example, workers near ground zero at the Nevada Test Site would be instructed to not wear their dosimeter badges so they could continue working, even after they’ve already received a full year’s dose of radiation. Think about that… the government knew these atomic workers were exposed to cancer-causing materials. And these men were encouraged to – sometimes ordered – to cover up information about their radiation exposure levels.
We cannot change what has already happened, but we can right our government’s wrongs. We can give workers and their survivors an easier path towards compensation. EEOICPA made sure that streamlining the process was an option for special classes of claimants.
Under this Program, atomic workers can apply for Special Exposure Cohort status. If they receive SEC designation, workers with qualifying cancers are paid benefits without undergoing complicated dose reconstruction. Reconstructing dose is difficult – especially with limited radiation monitoring data and lost records. And we all knew when we passed EEOICPA that there could be tens-of-thousands of nuclear weapons workers who fit in this category.
I strongly believe that all Nevada Test Site workers should have SEC status. 928 nuclear tests took place in
While I think that NTS workers should receive SEC status, I also recognize that the government’s implementation of the rest of Parts B and E should be drastically improved. One reason we are here today is because there are serious concerns that the existing adjudication process is failing to uphold the statutory mandate that the process be claimant friendly. I am troubled by the lack of quality assurance and transparency of the Labor Department’s claims adjudication procedures. It is unacceptable that a government program of this magnitude and significance has so few quality controls in place. We need to restore faith in the claims adjudication process.
A significant obstacle for sick atomic workers is the burden of proof they face to receive compensation. Under EEOICPA, a claimant has the ultimate burden to prove that his or her illness was “at least as likely as not” related to radiation or hazardous materials exposure at work. This might seem like a standard burden; but remember, it is the government and its contractors’ responsibility to maintain employment records and information about the radiation to which workers were exposed. Even with the Labor Department’s assistance in developing their cases, sick claimants ultimately pay the price – if their employment or medical records are insufficient to meet the high burden of proof, or the government lost their records, these workers probably will never receive compensation.
I don’t think any of us intended for EEOICPA to be this unforgiving to our Cold War veterans. Workers were placed in harms way by the government, yet they are asked to work through a complex process and shoulder a substantial burden in showing that their cancer or other illnesses were work-related. I think the least we can do is find a way to give sick workers a better chance of meeting this burden so the program actually works in their favor.
Recently Labor Secretary Elaine Chao acknowledged the need to improve the processing of EEOICPA claims. She noted that “time is running out” for many families. It is simply taking too long to compensate many workers.
Chairman Bingaman, again I appreciate you giving me this opportunity to address the Committee. I think EEOICPA has a good purpose, but it has the potential to be so much more helpful to our nation’s atomic weapons workers. I look forward to working with you and our colleagues to improve EEOICPA and to secure compensation for Cold War veterans in
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