White House rebuffs moving nuclear worker program

The Bush administration appears so far to have rejected a suggestion by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to move a nuclear energy workers' compensation program to the Justice Department.

In the proposed fiscal 2002 Labor Department budget, the Bush administration is asking for $733 million for the program, $597 million of which is earmarked for compensation and medical benefits for sick workers who became ill after exposure to radioactivity during weapons production and testing.

Some of the money will go to HHS, according to a budget briefing document, but it added that, "at the time the President's budget went to press, the final structure and executive branch placement of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program had not yet been determined."

Chao, who first proposed moving the EEOIC program last month, said at the Labor Department budget briefing last week that she is concerned her department does not have the infrastructure to begin making payments to injured workers by the July 31 deadline.

Meanwhile, several senators have weighed in. Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has urged the Bush administration to accept Chao's suggestion and move the compensation program to the Justice Department.

In a recent letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, Hatch said that while he has "complete confidence in the ability of the fine people at DOL to operate this program, the fact remains that DOL would literally have to 'start from scratch' in putting in place the necessary administrative systems to manage the program."

Hatch, noting that the Justice Department is already administering a similar radiation compensation program known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which he authored, said, "They [DOJ] already have the infrastructure and experience to handle these types of claims."

But Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have opposed moving the program, saying they intended it to be run from the Labor Department.

"The authors of the amendment, Republican and Democrat, believe that the Department of Labor is uniquely suited to administer the energy employees' program because it has vast experience in helping injured workers and a network of regional offices across the country where DOL claims personnel administer payments for injuries, illnesses, and medical benefits related to the workplace," Thompson told the administration in a letter last month.

Thompson also noted that DOJ officials testified before Congress last year that they did not have the staff or procedure in place for a program that pays out medical cost claims.

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