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Harkin calls for nuke worker’s case to be reopened, program to be fixed
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin will ask the U.S. Department of Labor to reopen the case of a deceased former Ames Laboratory worker who was denied medical compensation from the federal government. He will also push legislative fixes for the federal program that denied the claim, aides to the senator said Thursday.
Responding to an article by The Iowa Independent, a Harkin spokeswoman said he would push for the DOL to reopen the case of Michael Fellenger, who died in April 2008 of lung failure. Fellinger’s claim has been repeatedly denied by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), which is designed to compensate former nuclear workers with lump sum payments and medical benefits for illnesses linked to their exposures to radiation and toxic substances associated with their work. Former workers and advocates say instead of providing compensation, the federal program tangles claimants in years of bureaucracy, and in two out of three cases results in a denied claim.
Fellinger worked as a graduate student in high energy physics at the Ames Laboratory in 1960s and early 1970s. He produced lab equipment both for the Ames Laboratory and another Department of Energy site, Argonne Laboratories in Illinois. According to his claim documents, he was likely exposed to beryllium, known to cause chronic lung disease.
Fellinger’s widow received a final denial of her husband’s claim in April.
Legislatively, Harkin said he is looking to put a recent GAO report’s recommendations into action. Harkin and other congressional leaders requested the report in 2008 when criticism of the program became public through a series of investigative articles in the Rocky Mountain News. Released this March, the report criticized the EEOICP for lack of independent oversight, lack of transparency and lengthy claims processing times.
A spokeswoman said the senator’s staff is currently drafting language based on those GAO recommendations and looking for a moving piece of legislation they can be attached to.
“We have made great inroads, but as the GAO report suggests, gaps remain for these workers,” Harkin said in a statment to The Iowa Independent. “I am going to do everything I can within my power to close those gaps.”
Harkin was one of the authors of the legislation creating the EEOICP in 2000, and has remained involved the program throughout its history, including appropriations of money for the University of Iowa screening program that diagnosed Michael Fellinger’s lung disease as connected to his work history at Ames Laboratory.
In 2004, Harkin joined a group of senators that inserted language into a defense authorization bill that moved the program from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor and put a process in place to streamline worker compensation when the claims process under the DOE stagnated. The state of Iowa was one one of the first applicants for the new process.
Harkin took the EEOICP to task in 2005 for its decision to exclude workers at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Burlington from “special exposure cohort status”, which would have granted workers automatic compensation and spared them a lengthy process of estimating their exposures, called dose reconstruction. Harkin argued that the dose reconstruction process for IAAP workers was inaccurate and based on faulty data. The EEOICPA reversed their decision. Harkin’s office said his work secured $84 million in special exposure cohort payments for people who worked at Burlington.
“These workers did their job with excellence, and they did it at great personal peril. The men and women of Burlington truly were on the front lines of the Cold War. They received no medals, no thank-you’s, no special pay. But at last, they have compensation. And more importantly, some measure of justice,” Harkin said.
Harkin also chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), where a legislative fix for the program would have to originate.