Compensation for some workers from the Savannah River Site delayed – again!

One of the most appalling things I ever witnessed during a meeting of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health was the debacle of the Board’s failure to be able to vote on whether to include a group of workers from the Savannah River Site (SRS) in the Special Exposure Cohort (SEC).  The debate on this petition has lasted thirteen years!!

 

For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, a member of the SEC will not have to have their radiation dose reconstructed if the worker developed one of the 22 specified cancers and the compensation is automatic.

 

The original plan by the Board’s Work Group was to have the full Board vote on whether to add a new class of workers from SRS to the SEC during the December 9, 2020 virtual meeting. ANWAG sent a letter to Dr. John Howard, Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Robert P. Charrow, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detailing our concerns (read, “outrage”) with the conduct of two HHS employees.

 

One issue that concerned me was that the Board was informed that they needed to consult with the Department of Labor (DOL) to make sure that the class could be administered. The class definition is simple, all subcontract workers employed at SRS between October 1, 1972 and December 31, 1990. I’m quite confident that DOL would be able to process those claims.  It would be different if the class was so narrow that it would be difficult for DOL and the claimants to prove they belong to the SEC class.  For example, if the class was defined as only welders from building XX at the facility who were exposed to thorium fumes I can see how it would be beneficial to consult with DOL. But not for a class that includes all subcontract workers.

 

The reason this concerned me is that it reminded me of the infamous OMB passback memo.  This memo was so alarming that the House of Representatives held two hearings in 2006. 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, DOL thought a good way to “contain growth in the costs of benefits”” would be to “Require Administration clearance of SEC determination;”. In my opinion, this would effectively tie the Board’s hands as an independent advisory entity.  Remember, the Board only makes a recommendation to include a class in the SEC.  It is the Secretary of Health and Human Services that makes the final decision. 

But it appears that NIOSH found another way to delay and, therefore, “control the growth in the costs of benefits.”  They just keep revising their methodology ad nauseum.

 

I was hopeful that the Board would have the opportunity to vote on the petition during their February 24, 2021 teleconference.  The December 23, 2020 Federal Register Notice mentioned that the petition would be considered. 

Dr. Howard responded to ANWAG’s letter and encouraged NIOSH, the Board’s Work Group and the Board’s contractor, Sanford Cohen and Associates (SC&A) to “conclude their consideration of Petition 103 in 2021.”

 

Sadly, last week NIOSH notified the public in the Federal Register that the SRS petition will not be discussed during the February meeting after all.  The way I understand it, because NIOSH told the Board in December that they have a new way to reconstruct dose the Board must consider it.  This means SC&A must review NIOSH’s methods and NIOSH responds to any issues SC&A found.  Then it’s back to the Work Group to decide whether NIOSH will be able to reconstruct dose with sufficient accuracy.

 

This is wrong.  NIOSH cannot keep going back to the drawing board every time their methods are shot down.  The Work Group decided in November 2020 that NIOSH couldn’t reconstruct dose for this class of workers.  It was pretty underhanded, in my opinion, for NIOSH to drop this new idea hours before the vote.  It’s not fair to the claimants.  It defeats the Congressional intent to provide “…timely, uniform, and adequate compensation…”

There must be a time limit imposed on NIOSH.  Sure, the Board needs to evaluate and listen to the scientific debates.  But in the end it is their responsibility to say “Enough is enough,” and provide the Secretary of HHS their recommendation.