Compensation Program for Sick Workers Rejects Many, Doctors Say
August 14, 2009
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, created by Congress in 2001 and run by the Department of Labor, purportedly aims to help sick nuclear weapons workers, but according to Dr. Eugene Schwartz and many others, the Program improperly rejects many who need its help.
The Program boasts of having paid $5 billion in compensation and medical costs to more than 52,000 sick workers, averaging about $95,000 per person, but the workers themselves say that the Program denies three out of four claims for aid. Now the voice of Dr. Schwartz, who also holds a master's degree in nuclear engineering, has been added to their calls for reform. Harry Williams of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a sick worker and a founding member of the national Alliance for Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups, said, "[Dr. Schwartz] is saying that what we've been saying is true. With his credentials, the people in power will definitely have to pay attention."
Dr. Schwartz, the Harvard-trained former head doctor overseeing medical decisions at the Program, says that the Program tells many people with diseases such as brain, breast or bone cancer that radiation or toxic substances in nuclear weapons facilities could not have been the cause of their illness and their claims for aid are denied.
Dr. Schwartz is not alone in calling out the Program's flawed process. "That's madness," said Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum, a toxicologist, of the denials. Dr. Teitelbaum has testified on behalf of sick workers in other industries. Both doctors say that multiple studies have found links between brain, breast, and bone cancers and exposure to plutonium, PCBs and mixtures of chemicals and radiation.
Dr. Schwartz identifies two main problems. In the first step, a Department of Labor employee, not a doctor, determines whether a worker was exposed to substances that could have caused the condition by using a database to check the symptoms against chemicals and radiation. The problem, says Dr. Schwartz, is that the Program's $11 million database fails to recognize certain symptoms as being related to chemicals. With the database lacking studies that demonstrate links between these symptoms, such as brain tumors and chemicals or radiation, many claims are denied without further review. Schwartz notes that the database has not been peer-reviewed and does not take into account the combined effects of toxic chemicals and low-level radiation. The system dismisses cases where radiation exposures were not high enough to be the sole cause of cancer. Thus, cases where the worker was exposed to a combination of chemicals and radiation often slip through the cracks.
The other problem as identified by Schwartz is the final step, where a government-hired doctor, called a District Medical Consultant, agrees that the disease was caused by exposure. Schwartz says that many of the doctors working for the Program have not had thorough credential checks and often their expertise is overstated.
Dr. Maureen Merritt, a retired Family Practice and Occupational Medicine physician and national advocate for nuclear workers, said, "I completely agree with Dr. Schwartz' characterization of the serious flaws in this Program. For several years I've been calling for more oversight and education of the questionably trained Claims Examiners who have disproportionate authority to decide yes or no on a worker's claim early in the process. I've also asked for more stringent vetting of the District Medical Consultants: The Department of Labor should, at minimum, be checking these physicians' credentials against the National Practitioner Databank, as our nation's hospitals and clinics routinely do before hiring a doctor. It is also important to make sure the physician's board certification/specialty is appropriate to the type of claim they are paid to review. I have heard of pediatric neurologists reviewing adult nuclear worker lung cancer cases; and I have personally asked the Department of Labor to have a pulmonologist (lung specialist) review a beryllium lung disease claim, only to get a general medicine doctor instead. The current practice of inconsistent and unfair adjudication of EEOICP claims across the board must end."
For more information about the Laura Frank article upon which this CCNS News Update is based, please go to www.propublica.org:80/feature/plan-to-pay-sick-nuclear-workers-unfairly-rejects-many-doctor-says-731