Senators have passed a bill that would launch a government investigation into allegations from whistleblowers that Labor Department officials intentionally wrote and manipulated regulations to delay and deny congressionally mandated compensation to nuclear-weapons workers.
The compensation program created by Congress is designed to benefit hundreds of thousands of the nuclear workers who suffered sicknesses—and in some cases died—as a result of their work building the nation's Cold War arsenal.
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The Senate action comes after a Washington Free Beacon report on the whistleblower allegations in late July.
The Senate last week passed a bill funding the Labor Department that would require the agency's Office of Inspector General to conduct a "comprehensive review" of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) to determine "the impact of policy changes in the past two years" on the workers applying for the funds, as well as whether the program is currently fulfilling its "statutory mission."
The Appropriations Committee also expressed deep concern about the whistleblower's allegations that Labor Department leadership under former Secretary Tom Perez ignored years of his complaints about the "open hostility" he said some administrators exhibited toward claimants, many of whom are too poor and sick to fight the agency's denials and red tape in federal court.
"The committee is disturbed by reports that a DOL whistleblower charged that the DOL's Division of [EEOICPA] thwarted workers' attempts to seek compensation by ‘writing regulations that made qualification much more stringent than Congress intended, failing to disclose all the application rules, changing eligibility rules midstream, and delaying compensation for years until the sicker workers died,'" the panel said in the bill, quoting from the Free Beacon story.
The committee noted that outside groups, such as the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups (ANWAG) had also raised concerns about the whistleblower's allegations and the program's administration. ANWAG in late July called for Congressional investigations into the whistleblower's charges.
The language also strongly urges the Labor Department to make several changes aimed at assisting current and former nuclear workers' efforts to navigate the compensation program, including establishing a 1-800 number for workers to receive information about the claims process, allowing industrial hygienists to contact current or former workers regarding their claims, and extending the timeline for workers to file an appeal in U.S. District Court from 60 days to 180 days after a claim is denied.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx, (R., N.C.), began investigating the whistleblower’s complaints in late July, working with the Labor Department staff and the inspector general to "get to the bottom" of the complaints, according to a committee spokeswoman.
Foxx also has urged the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, to review aspects of the program and has brought the whistleblower complaints to the attention of the inspector general to review.
Labor Department spokesman Stephen Barr did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stephen Silbiger, the Labor Department whistleblower, said he is encouraged by the Senate action because no one at the agency or in Congress has reached out to him to investigate his concerns.
Silbiger said new top officials at the Labor department appointed by President Trump have yet to reach out to him or inquire about the charges at all. Additionally, his substantive work at the Labor Department has dried up since the article appeared, which he said was retaliatory action for his decision to take his complaints to the media.
"The Trump administration has not asked me anything about this and have not responded to complaints that I'm now not getting any substantive work," he told the Free Beacon in an interview Tuesday. "No one has talked to me about this—no one in the administration or Congress."
Terrie Berrie, an ANWAG official, said she is thrilled that the Senate included the language but hopes it survives an upcoming House-Senate conference process.
"This program has deteriorated and these amendments will definitely improve the fairness of the program for claimants," she said.
She noted that several of the changes to the program were specific recommendations by the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health, which Congress created in 2015 to help provide technical expertise to the DOL administrators and serve as a liaison between the agency and the claimants.
The advisory board has made dozens of recommendations to the Labor Department administrators of the program who have only implemented a handful of them, Barrie said.
Those administrators, she has said, are still "accountable to no one, to the detriment of workers who gave their health and lives for our country."
Before learning about the whistleblower's similar concerns, ANWAG sent a complaint to the DOL inspector general in mid-July calling for an immediate and full investigation into the administrators' handing of the claims "to determine if unethical or illegal regulatory procedures occurred which may have resulted in unjustified denial of claims."
Under the law, EEOICP qualified workers who were diagnosed with certain types of cancer or other diseases acquired from exposure to toxic substances at covered facilities, or their survivors, are entitled to between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation to help pay medical bills and loss of wages due to their illnesses, with a cap of $400,000.
Update 10:26 a.m.: This post has been updated with information from a House Education and Workforce spokeswoman.