Feds tried to cut aid
Limits sought on help for ill workers
By Ann Imse And Laura Frank
Rocky Mountain News
March 10, 2007
Federal officials secretly schemed to limit payouts for sick and dying nuclear weapons workers, including thousands from the Rocky Flats plant outside Denver, newly released documents show.
The officials responsible for helping those workers went behind their boss's back, called on White House officials for help and tried to hide their efforts, according to internal e-mails and memos obtained by a congressional committee and posted on its Web site.
They also wanted to get the White House to override scientific decisions granting compensation and pack the program's advisory board with members less sympathetic to workers.
Labor officials say the plans were never carried out, and they deny trying to hide them.
The U.S. Department of Labor oversees the program to compensate workers whose illnesses can be tied to working with radioactive and other toxic materials at nuclear weapons plants, such as the now-defunct Rocky Flats.
More than 60,000 ill atomic bomb makers, including thousands from Rocky Flats, have sought help. About 16,000 workers nationwide have received a total of $2.6 billion. Far more have been denied or still are waiting for help.
Throughout the documents, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Labor Shelby Hallmark and other officials express grave concern that the bill for providing $150,000 per ill worker could reach $7 billion over 10 years.
Coincidentally, $7 billion is what the U.S. Department of Energy spent over 10 years cleaning up just one of its sites - Rocky Flats. The department has spent $65 billion so far cleaning up 84 of its weapons sites, which were left contaminated by the drive to win the Cold War.
In the memos, Hallmark worries about compensation costs soaring in "an arms race among members (of Congress) jockeying to demonstrate their ability to bring home 'special' benefits to their constituents." His boss, Assistant Secretary of Labor Victoria Lipnic, bemoaned, "There is not a fiscal conservative left anywhere."
Now, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is looking into whether the Labor Department overstepped its bounds and meddled in the payments illegally.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said, "Clearly, the administration put dollars above honoring the nation's promise to the Cold War veterans."
He added this is "almost worse" than the bad conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That was negligence, Udall said, where "this seems to be a pretty callous plan that the administration knew could harm sick veterans."
Some lawmakers see the documents as evidence of continued stonewalling in the program, as workers died before they could collect benefits.
"Those involved in this back-room manipulation of the program have destroyed the government credibility again," U.S. Rep. John Hostettler said in December. The Indiana Republican held hearings last year to investigate the program, which has been plagued by delays since 2000.
"This program was supposed to ensure workers that the deceit was over and the government was finally going to do right by them. Those tasked with implementing the program have failed that purpose miserably and they need to be exposed for what they have done."
Instead of helping workers, the program has spawned a "culture of disdain" toward them, Hostettler said.
In memos and e-mails in October 2005, Labor Department officials expressed concern about approving compensation for whole groups of workers, called "special exposure cohorts."
Congress ordered these special cohorts if records on workers' radiation exposure were so incomplete, missing or destroyed that scientists could not reconstruct the radiation doses to link them to workers' illness.
Workers at many sites, including Rocky Flats, have requested SEC status. Rocky Flats workers are expecting a decision in May.
Each special cohort approved makes more workers eligible for compensation and would add to costs.
In a Jan. 31, 2005, memo, Hallmark wrote about Iowa and Missouri sites that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was about to approve for special cohort status. He worried this would make it easier for other sites, such as Rocky Flats, to get the same status.
NIOSH had written a notice for the Federal Register granting the status. Hallmark wrote: "We have revised the attached version of the notice . . . to require that NIOSH DENY (the petition)."
Labor officials suggested in memos to the White House's Office of Management and Budget that OMB should have final say on future requests for special cohorts. That would mean budget officials would overrule scientific conclusions about exposures.
Giving special cohort status to the Iowa and Missouri sites had "the potential to vastly increase the cost of the program and decrease its scientific validity," Labor Department attorney Jeffrey Nesvet said in a memo on Oct. 6, 2005.
Costs could approach $7 billion, Nesvet said. "At this point, it is clear that only intervention by the OMB is likely to stem this trend," his memo said.
Hallmark, in other memos, notes that it would be unfair to pay claims to "undeserving" workers whose illnesses might not be related to their work.
In a late 2005 memo, OMB agreed and said the White House would convene a work group to recommend ways to "contain growth in the costs" of the compensation program.
In February 2006, Hallmark told OMB in an e-mail that he was "still smarting" over its memo a few months earlier citing his office as the source of the cost-containment suggestions.
"I am uncomfortable with even an unofficial sharing of my briefing piece for today's meeting with my second-floor people (the U.S. secretary of labor's office) since I am not at all convinced they will be willing to argue directly for any or all the actions it proposes. . . . But if you promise not to spread it, and if you don't use the language in your documents such that NIOSH will know where the verbiage came from, I'll share it."
Denials to Congress
In December, Hallmark testified in Hostettler's congressional hearing that allegations of a covert cost-containment effort "are simply not true." No such effort ever happened, he said.
"Cost containment is not part of any strategy or involvement that the Department of Labor has had in this process," testified Hallmark, who has worked for the Labor Department since 1980.
Hallmark also denied to Congress that the Labor Department was trying to prevent approvals of special cohorts.
Hallmark declined to be interviewed by the Rocky but responded to written questions sent to his office.
Hallmark said the OMB proposals "have not been and will not be pursued."
When asked about Labor Department efforts to limit costs, Hallmark said he was concerned only with the "overall consistency and fairness of the program."
He noted that he must be able to defend decisions as reasonable and objective to the federal courts and to the public.
"Workers at the Rocky Flats facility who suffered some of the highest exposures of the DOE complex deserve no less," he said.
Change of view
The memos indicate a big shift in Labor Department sympathies since early 2004.
Hallmark wrote in a February 2004 e-mail that it seemed like "common sense" to give Rocky Flats special cohort status since it is "probably one of, if not THE, dirtiest site."
At one point, he wondered in writing if they should just give every nuclear weapons worker the benefit of the doubt.
Then something changed.
The same month, Labor Department officials began to request rewrites in NIOSH documents that mentioned problems with radiation exposure reports.
Acknowledging faults with the records would "undermine confidence" in how scientists determine workers' radiation doses, the memos say.
In December 2004, Hallmark complained that NIOSH's independent radiation advisory board was successfully pushing NIOSH to approve more claims, the memos show. The next month, Hallmark said he was worried that giving cohort status to the plants in Iowa and Missouri would set a precedent for approving other sites.
The draft approval for the Mallinckrodt plant in St. Louis cited missing or corrupted data.
"The same allegation has been made for virtually every DOE site, and in most cases, acknowledged to one degree or another," Hallmark wrote Jan. 31, 2005.
Giving this reason for the special cohort status "would essentially signal acceptance of SECs at all DOE sites," he wrote.
For the Iowa plant, the advisory board recommended approval because the government couldn't tell workers exactly what they were exposed to. Doing so would reveal secret information about nuclear weapons manufacturing.
Hallmark wrote Feb. 10, 2005, that if Iowa was approved for cohort status, "certainly Pantex (Texas), Y-12 (a big part of Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee), Los Alamos (New Mexico), Hanford (in Washington state), Piniellas (in Florida) and Rocky Flats and probably several others - can be expected to be filed immediately on the 'classified data' basis."
At least part of his concern was staved off when Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, whose department oversees NIOSH, ratified the cohort status for Iowa without mentioning classified data. It is not clear whether the Labor Department influenced that decision.
In addition, NIOSH obtained a ruling from the Department of Justice saying that classified data are not a valid reason for a cohort status.
In February 2005, the Steelworkers' union filed its petition for cohort status for Rocky Flats. It argued that autopsies have shown more plutonium in Rocky Flats workers' bodies than shown in tests while they were alive.
That's proof exposure records are unreliable, the union said.
By law, a decision on the petition was supposed to be made within six months of the filing. The decision expected in May is nearly two years late.
The recently released internal documents have infuriated lawmakers, who say Congress intended to give Cold War veterans the benefit of the doubt and help them as quickly as possible.
More than half a billion dollars has been spent on administrative costs and trying to reconstruct workers' dosages of radiation. The compensation program was so problem-plagued that the half run by the Energy Department was transferred in 2004 to the Labor Department.
Other concerns about the Labor Department's handling of the program have arisen.
Congressman Hostettler said during his December hearing that the Labor Department was "selectively culling" worker claims for review.
Hallmark replied that most of the pulled cases had actually been headed for denial.
"We were nearly always giving the claimant a second chance," Hallmark said.
The GAO will be investigating how the Labor Department has handled the program.
Daniel Bertoni, who heads the GAO's workforce investigations, said, "The concern is: What had changed? If they weren't reviewing these cases before, why are they now?"
Udall, of Colorado, said the documents "confirm what many of us suspected was under way, which was the administration tried to override science to cut costs at the expense of sick workers. And it might have succeeded if the plan hadn't been exposed."
imsea@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5438; frankl@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5091