By Laura Frank, Rocky Mountain News (Contact)
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Additional mediaOfficials at the U.S. Department of Labor say recent stories in the Rocky Mountain News "paint an inaccurate picture" of the program to compensate Cold War-era workers who became sick while building the nation's nuclear arsenal and "indict the entire program based on a small number of individual claimants' experiences."
* DOL letter to Rep. Mark Udall
* DOL letter to Rep. Ed Perlmutter
* Letter to Department of Labor
* DOL letter to Rep. Tom Udall
The comments came in letters to three U.S. congressmen who had asked the Labor Department why it failed to respond to the findings of a Rocky investigation published last month in a special report called "Deadly Denial."
The Rocky found that government officials had derailed aid to workers by keeping reports secret, constantly changing rules and delaying cases for so long that sick workers died before being paid.
The Rocky interviewed more than 100 people for its report and featured more than 25 sick workers, survivors, advocates, doctors and former program officials from across the nation who told how the program that was created to be "compassionate, fair and timely" instead had become adversarial and unfair.
The Rocky made repeated requests over the course of several months for interviews with top program officials and even sent the Labor Department a three- page letter detailing the major findings of its investigation six weeks prior to publishing the series.Labor Department officials said they would respond, but did not.
Colorado congressmen Mark Udall and Ed Perlmutter, both Democrats whose districts include many former workers from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site northwest of Denver, sent Labor Secretary Elaine Chao a letter last month criticizing the department for its silence. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., sent a similar letter.
"Federal agencies are established to serve the taxpayer and be accountable to them for decisions regarding programs within an agency's responsibility," the Colorado congressmen wrote. "It is simply not acceptable to not respond to requests to explain decisions made regarding this program . . . The people who toiled in dangerous conditions at the facilities to help secure our nation deserve no less."
The congressmen were not happy with the Labor Department's written response to the Rocky's series. They said it appeared that the department was dodging its own responsibility for problems in the compensation program.
"It is appalling to me that Department of Labor officials still refuse to provide direct answers to the direct questions they are asked," said Rep. Mark Udall. "Instead, their response to our letter is nothing more than an attempt to divert attention away from the catastrophic failure of their program by attempting to discredit an excellent series by the Rocky Mountain News. . . . The DOL has made taking care of Rocky Flats workers a low priority and has taken a nickel-and-dime attitude toward meeting the health benefits owed to our country's nuclear weapons workers.
"This is beyond unacceptable. These Cold War warriors deserve due compensation for the sacrifices that they have made to our grateful nation. The needs of 15,000 Rocky Flats workers should not be held hostage to a foot-dragging bureaucracy."
Tom Udall, Mark Udall's cousin, said: "In reviewing the Department of Labor's response, it appears that the agency is unwilling to acknowledge its role in contributing to the problems associated with the . . . program.
"It would be reassuring if the agency appeared willing to take the feedback from concerned members of Congress, workers advocates and thousands of claimants nationwide, and use that feedback to identify areas in which DOL can improve the program for these sick claimants.
"Instead, DOL chooses to shoot the messenger and this is unacceptable."
The Rocky's articles "raised awareness about problems the workers and their families are having regarding compensation," Perlmutter said.
'Treated with respect'
The Labor Department's letter said: "All claimants are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and receive the benefits to which the statute entitles them."
If so, that marks a change, said Terrie Barrie, of Craig, who became a leading advocate for sick nuclear weapons workers nationwide after her husband George, a former Rocky Flats worker, became ill.
"Maybe today they will do those things, but before the articles, it was awful," Barrie said.
In its letter, the Labor Department commented specifically on several cases the Rocky's stories described. One was the case of Douglas DelForge, a former Rocky Flats worker who died in February at age 46 after fighting brain tumors for 15 years. DelForge received part of his compensation payment before he died, but his payment for lost wages was delayed.
The Labor Department said the allegation that DelForge's lost wages claim was delayed "is wholly without merit."
Department of Labor executive Shelby Hallmark, however, told the Rocky in February that DelForge's lost wage claim had been "deferred," or put on hold.
"It's all just bogus," Cliff DelForge, Douglas' father, said, after learning what the Labor Department wrote to the congressmen concerning his son's case. "The fact that they took so long to accept his initial claim is a travesty.
"It took them four and a half years to find a link between his type of brain tumors and radiation. I found it on the Internet in 15 minutes."
Labor Department officials said "with the exception of one or two cases where inadvertent delays did occur," the department followed the law and acted "as promptly as possible" in every case described by the Rocky.
The compensation program "is an extremely complex benefit program and, like any such program, some claims will be denied, and a few honest mistakes will be made," officials wrote. "As a result, some claimants will be disappointed. The department regrets any situations where mistakes have been made for claimants or have caused them difficulty.
"Nevertheless, the Department of Labor has continuously focused on assisting claimants by providing sympathetic service as promptly as possible. Where problems do arise, we have many processes in place to provide redress, and they work."
[See also Rocky responds to the Department of Labor.]