Hard to understand documents may be costing sick Hanford workers

More than 4,000 previously denied claims in a federal compensation program for ill workers at nuclear sites like Hanford were approved in recent years.

But the number might have been higher if those filing claims had information about refiling claims that was easier to understand, according to a Government Accountability Office report recently released.

The report, requested by Congress, found that the Department of Labor should communicate more clearly with people filing claims.

The program compensates workers or their survivors for illnesses that likely were caused by exposures to radiation or toxic chemicals at Department of Energy nuclear sites, including the Hanford nuclear reservation.

To date the program has paid compensation and medical benefits totaling almost $1.6 billion for Hanford workers who became ill, plus $274 million for workers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Benefits can include a $150,000 payment for radiation-caused cancers or lung disease caused by the metal beryllium and $250,000 for wage loss, impairment and survivor benefits for exposure to toxic chemicals.

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A worker is shown at the Hanford PUREX processing plant in 1956. Courtesy Department of Energy

The majority of reopened claims from 2012 to 2017 were initiated by the Department of Labor, which administers the program.

Of about 6,000 previously denied claims, about 75 percent were approved if they were reopened by the Department of Labor’s initiative. Just 52 percent of previously denied claims were approved if claimants had taken the initiative to refile them.

The Department of Labor may reopen groups of related claims if new information comes to light. For instance, trichloroethylene, a degreasing agent used at Hanford, has been linked to kidney cancer, strengthening some claims for exposed workers.

In other cases, the Department of Labor determines that the radiation exposure for groups of workers cannot be estimated and presumes that the exposure caused cancer.

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An unidentified employee works in the Hanford 325 Building chemistry laboratory in a photo dated 1969. Courtesy DOE

Workers may ask that individual claims be reopened if the worker or the worker’s surviving family member has new medical information or more information about the worker’s employment or if the Department of Labor adds more chemicals to its database for specific buildings, including at Hanford.

Most often claims were denied because a link between a toxic exposure and an illness could not be established, not enough medical information had been supplied or the survivor applying was not eligible to claim benefits.

Some people filing claims may have been denied approval because they did not understand what evidence would be required to reopen a claim, the GAO report said, citing information in 2015 from the federal program’s Office of the Ombudsman for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

“In particular, the ombudsman found that DOL’s written communication with claimants did not clearly explain what specific evidence was needed or why previously submitted evidence was deemed insufficient,” the GAO report said.

Department of Labor officials told the GAO in July that they have taken steps to help people filing claims and improve communication. They included visiting district offices to provide training on writing letters using reader-friendly language.

The Department of Labor also has hired a training analyst to develop additional training for claims examiners and to develop a method for assessing the effectiveness of training.

Hanford workers or their families who want to file or refile a compensation claim through the Department of Labor and other programs may get help or information at no cost at the DOE’s Hanford Workforce Engagement Center at 309 Bradley Blvd. Suite 120, in Richland.

Call 509-376-4932 for more information.

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Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.