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Government cuts off e-mails from nuke workers’ doctor
In a bureaucratic spin on “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” the Department of Labor has notified a medical advocate for sick nuclear workers that he is no longer allowed to e-mail the federal program for information, a move he says is retribution for his outspoken criticism of the program’s failings.
Dr. Laurence Fuortes, the director of the University of Iowa Former Worker Medical Screening Program, can send a letter to the Department of Labor about nuclear workers’ claims, and he can fax them, but he’s been told they will no longer accept e-mails from him.
Fuortes advocates for former nuclear workers in their compensation claims with the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), created to help compensate those sickened by exposure to radiation and other toxic substances during their work in our nation’s nuclear weapons program. The program has been criticized by workers and advocates for long delays in processing claims (an average of 3 years) and for denying two of every three applicants.
He is also an advocate for the deceased Ames Laboratory worker Michael Fellinger, who died in 2008 of chronic lung disease. Fellinger’s widow, Bo Fellinger, and Fuortes believe that Michael’s exposure to toxins on the job led to his developing pulmonary fibrosis in 1993. Fellinger’s claim has been repeatedly denied by the EEOICP since 2008.
Fuortes believes the sudden change in e-mail policy is punitive, coming as it does between media attention about the Fellinger case and the troubled program in general, along with a formal request by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin for the Department of Labor to reconsider the Fellinger case.
“I think they view my communications as a pain in the ass, and really, part of the ongoing argument about how they are processing claims in general,” he said. “Now (Rachel Leiton) is saying, ‘I don’t want to discuss this anymore.’”
Leiton, the director of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program Act, informed Fuortes in a formal letter to limit his contact with the program concerning claimant’s cases to “writing, by letter or facsimile, to ensure the security and integrity of the document chain.”
“While we do not intend to interfere with your representation of our program’s claimant, please be advised that we cannot reply to e-mail inquiries,“ she said.
While Leiton cites privacy concerns and a need to enforce the program’s e-mail policy, Fuortes has been exchanging e-mails with Department of Labor staffers for several years about Fellinger’s case and others, in an attempt to navigate the bureaucracy of the claims process on behalf of former workers and their families.
That stopped after Leiton’s letter. In an e-mail last month, a staffer responded in a single sentence to a case inquiry: “I am no longer in a position to respond to any case specific items.”
The Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment by The Iowa Independent.
Granted, Fuortes is asking some hard questions about the Fellinger case. He received all the EEOICP e-mails concerning the case through a Freedom of Information Act request. After sifting through them, he says key pieces of medical evidence he supplied to support the case appear never to have been forwarded to the department’s medical consultants for their review.
“The opinions of the four doctors and the medical literature that I supplied to support the argument that their decision was in error wasn’t ever given to the doctor reviewing the case. At least as far as I can tell from the e-mail records,” Fuortes said.
And he wants to know why. He thinks they are controlling outcomes by “cherry picking” what case information gets passed along to medical consultants. This “cherry-picking” was also noted as one of the reasons Harkin cited in his request for the case be reopened.
“Are you really that blatantly biased in your opinion? That’s what I’m really asking,” Fuortes said. “It’s become personal for them, because their professionalism is being called into question.”
UPDATE: A Department of Labor spokesperson said Leiton’s letter was a reinforcement of a long standing policy that EEOICP does not handle communications about claims with either claimants or physicians via e-mail. They instead prefer that communications be via phone or letter, “as e-mail cannot be considered secure. We do not refuse to answer questions about a contested case or any other case.”
According to the spokesperson, Fuortes has worked in several different roles related to the program, as a medical contractor for the Department of Labor, and as a physician for the Deptartment of Energy’s Former Worker Program.
“In those capacities, over the years he has written general emails to various DEEOIC staff,” the statement said. “However, more recently he has not only been claimants’ treating physician but has been their authorized representative for the case. In either of those roles, he has been sending case-specific information over e-mail. As our policy indicates, it is inappropriate and inefficient for us to accept case-specific e-mails.”