Labor Department officials announced Tuesday that they would reopen the comment period for a proposed set of rule changes that have not been well received by the community of nuclear workers eligible for a federal compensation program for workers with certain occupational illnesses. DOL’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs has responsibility for adjudicating and processing employees’ claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, (EEOICPA).
A 60-day comment period, which was already extended an extra 30 days through Feb. 18, 2016, will be opened again April 5 for another 33 days until May 9.
The extension will allow time for a new DOL Advisory Boardon Toxic Substances and Workers Health to examine the rule changes that have been proposed for EEOICPA. The board appointments were announced April 1. The board is composed of five members from the scientific community, five members from the medical community and five members from the claimant community.
Notable among the scientific community members is Kenneth Z. Silver, Associate Professor of EnvironmentalHealth, East Tennessee State University, whose name is familiar in Northern New Mexico for his early and continuing contributions to the compensation act.
The advisory board chairman is Steven Markowitz, MD, Dr.PH: Professor and Director, Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment, Queens College; Professor, CUNY School of Public Health.
The decision to extend the comment period was made shortly after a letter was sent to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M. and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. expressing “strong concerns” about the proposed alterations in the program.
In an announcement Wednesday, Sen. Udall, recalled the embattled history of the law that was signed in 2000 and the ongoing struggle to improve access to fair and appropriate compensation for nuclear workers affected by radiological and hazardous risks of their jobs.
“EEOICPA has been plagued with bureaucratic hurdles and delays for years, and I’m concerned that the Department of Labor’s latest rule change will just add more steps to the process and make it harder for sick workers to prove a case.” Udall said. “Extending the public comment period is a positive sign, and I encourage all New Mexicans to weigh in. But we also need to make sure the new Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health has a chance to review the program before any major changes occur.”
Udall wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez Dec.22, 2015, expressing some initial concerns during the original comment period. “Firstly, DOL proposed over 100 changes in this notice of proposed rulemaking, some of which may have an adverse effect on the way claims are adjudicated,” he wrote, adding that Congress had created the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health in 2014, but that it had still not been seated a year later.
Terrie Barrie of the Nuclear Workers Advocacy Group, which has submitted an extensive set of comments about the proposed changes, said Thursday, “They’re giving me heartburn.” She said DOL has not been forthcoming so far about the motivation or the underlying rationale for the changes.
Among the problems she highlighted was a provision that she says would cede to DOL the claimant’s right to choose a personal physician. “There are cases where they get the final okay,” she said.
On the other hand she said, ‘Secretary Perez made a fabulous selection for the board members and I am thrilled beyond belief.”
More information on NWAG is available at the Energy Employees Claimants Assistance Project.
The newly formed DOL advisory board will begin to sort through issues that have been raised by the new proposals at its first meeting, April 26-28, 2016, in Washington, DC. A contact listed for information about the meeting is Ms. Carrie Rhoads, OWCP, Room S-3524, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20210; telephone 202.343.5580; email EnergyAdvisoryBoard@dol.gov.