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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Hanford Workers' Medical Care Compromised and Delayed

September 19, 2006
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By GAP Nuclear Oversight Investigator Lea Mitchell. 

During World War II, Washington state aided the national interest by using Hanford to manufacture plutonium for the world's first atomic bombs. Although that era may be a thing of the past, the byproducts of it are not.

Hanford is now the most contaminated place in the Western hemisphere and the largest environmental remediation project in history. Gov. Chris Gregoire led the charge to hold the federal government accountable for promises made to our state, our representatives fight year after year for sufficient cleanup funds and Washington voters have supported cleanup efforts. It is time now to also turn up the heat on another key part of the cleanup -- providing medical assessment and compensation to Hanford workers who get ill or injured on the job.

A recent report issued by the Government Accountability Project exposes the Department of Energy's systemic interference with workers' compensation claims. The findings assert that DOE's program delays, denies and compromises workers' medical care. In addition, it challenges the DOE and state officials to ensure that the federal government does not create another generation of workers who are denied access to adequate medical care and compensation.

Injured workers are shuffled to Hanford's onsite medical provider who works for and is paid by the DOE. Records established here may assert that ailments are not work-related or omit crucial information about worksite conditions. Many workers are required to go to an "independent" medical examiner who is paid for and selected by the DOE. Some of those examiners do not have complete records, perform limited additional testing, and reach conclusions used to overturn diagnoses made by a worker's personal physician. One worker found that examiners changed their conclusions after being contacted by DOE's lawyers.

Responding to worker concerns, the DOE recently hired Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to review the program. The L&I report has been cited by the DOE as proof that there are no major problems with the program. In fact, the scope of the review was carefully orchestrated -- and limited -- by the DOE itself. Despite the self-serving nature of the review, it found that Hanford compensation claims are denied at double the rate of other self-insured employers. It also found that nearly half of all claims files were managed in a "fair" or "poor" manner and that DOE's program often failed to track down critical medical information.

Since DOE took over the program from L&I in 2000, the rate of claim denials has tripled. Workers who appeal the denials of their claims often face aggressive DOE legal tactics financed by your tax dollars.

Is this how we want to treat workers who take risks in order to leave Washington citizens a cleaner, better state?

It will take at least 30 more years to clean the waste the federal government left behind. We cannot forget workers when they become ill or injured on the job and seek compensation. Federal compensation programs alone are not sufficient, and were never meant to be. Neither is a self-insured program run by the DOE with little state oversight.

Eliminating DOE's systemic interference with workers claims requires putting the program back into the hands of L&I and closing loopholes in state law allowing for deviations that "aide the national interest."

Generations from now, the success of the Hanford cleanup will be measured not only by how clean the environment is, but also by how Hanford workers were treated when they sought medical assessment, care, and compensation. Let's be sure we can look back and say they were treated well.

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