Memo: Administration tried to cut payouts to nuke workers

Updated 12/5/2006 8:34 AM ET

By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration repeatedly sought ways to limit payouts to nuclear weapons workers sickened by radiation and toxic material, according to a memo written by congressional investigators and obtained by USA TODAY.

The investigation focuses on a federal program created in 2000 to compensate people with cancers and other illnesses tied to their work at government and contractor-owned facilities involved in Cold War nuclear weapons production. About 98,000 cases have been filed under the program, and the Labor Department has approved compensation in about 24,000 of those cases. However, program records show that not all of those approved claims have been paid.

Since 2002, "there is a continuous stream of (administration) communications ... strategizing on minimizing payouts," according to the Nov. 30 memo by staff for the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims. The memo, prepared for the panel's chairman, Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., summarizes and quotes from thousands of pages of records reviewed by the subcommittee in its probe.

The subcommittee holds a hearing Tuesday on the investigation. Hostettler is pressing ahead despite losing re-election last month, vowing to release key documents and urging Democrats to continue the probe when they take over in 2007.

Administration officials say the memos reflect internal brainstorming on how to avoid compensating workers who aren't eligible.

"We're not pursuing those ideas," says Shelby Hallmark, the Labor Department's director of workers' compensation programs. "What we've been doing all along is trying to ensure that the program is implemented in a way that is fair and consistent and in accord with the law."

Hostettler was not available for comment, but he said at a November hearing that records reviewed in the investigation "do not support" the administration's stance. "This program was supposed to assure workers ... (that) their government was finally going to do right by them," he added. "Those tasked with implementing (it) have failed that purpose miserably and they need to be exposed."

The program covers workers from about 350 facilities nationwide, as well as uranium miners. Claimants can get up to $150,000; some also can get paid for medical bills, lost wages and disability.

In a memo from October 2005, program director Hallmark complains to White House officials that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which reviews some claims, is adopting "extreme exaggerations of (worker exposure) on the grounds that every decision point must be as 'claimant favorable' as conceivably possible." The documents also show officials debating ways to change the balance of a program oversight panel by adding members skeptical of workers' claims.

"You've got bureaucrats pressuring the scientists and when they can't get what they want, they try to squeeze the (adjudication) process wherever they can," says Richard Miller, a claimants' advocate with the Government Accountability Project. "These workers are dying with every day that goes by."

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