They are called Cold War veterans — people who worked for years building up the nation’s nuclear defenses at places like the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
Many of them have developed serious illnesses due to the chemicals and materials they were exposed to day after day in the workplace. Now, it is feared that changes to rules governing the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) being made by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could result in significant hardships for retired workers seeking healthcare.
Professional Case Management (PCM)( https://www.procasemanagement.com/our-mission/), a provider of home health care services to nuclear defense and uranium workers, has filed a lawsuit against DOL to keep the Department from implementing the rule changes, which are set to go into effect on Tuesday, April 9. According to PCM, the lawsuit wants DOL to “work collaboratively with stakeholders in good faith to establish appropriate regulations to ensure that seriously-ill patients receive the medical treatment they have earned.”
According to PCM, their lawsuit against the Department of Labor alleges that the rule changes, which include a “new, onerous and time-consuming preauthorization process for home health care, would make it much more difficult for patients to access the care they need in a timely way.”
“Many of the people eligible for these benefits are in their 70s and 80s and are gravely ill from exposure to radiation and other toxins that occurred decades ago while they were working on our nation’s nuclear defense,” PCM states.
“The EEOICP is a promise to the hard-working men and women who built our nuclear defense that our country will take care of them. With these proposed rule changes, the Department of Labor is going back on that promise,” said Greg Austin, PCM president. “The people we serve deserve better than that. They are often in need of immediate medical care and, sadly, some could die waiting for the new preauthorization process to run its course. For them, health care delayed is truly health care denied.”
In an interview with the News Watchman on Monday, Austin said that the rule changes of most concern are in relation to healthcare benefits, specifically home healthcare benefits. According to Austin, the new rules call for a new authorization process “that has a lot of back-and-forth through the mail.”
PCM says that the new authorization process is a 36-step process, and Austin said that it could take 60 days or longer for approval for home healthcare benefits to come through.
“So we just think that’s unacceptable given the nature of these people’s illnesses and the immediate need for many of them to get access to home healthcare,” Austin said.
One of those former nuclear workers who receives home healthcare treatment is Ralph Poetker, of Jackson, who was employed at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant from 1957 to about 1980. He indicated that without the nursing care he receives at home, he would not survive.
Poetker did not mince words when asked about the possibility of the Department of Labor’s rule changes affecting other people in a similar situation to his.
“It could kill them,” Poetker said.
He used his own needs as an example, explaining that he needs oxygen, doctor visits, lung care, heart care, and he said he has kidney problems, as well.
He said that he has asbestosis and has asbestos on his lungs. According to the Mayo Clinic, asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
“I breathed all kinds of chemicals, and my lungs are shot,” Poetker said. “I’m in a nasty mess as far as breathing goes.”
He indicated that his heart is functioning at about 15 percent capacity and his lungs are functioning at about 25 percent capacity.
Poetker lives at home and has health nurses caring for him around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said that his home healthcare is already set up, but he hopes the rule changes do not affect him.
“I hope they don’t fool with my healthcare because I can’t afford it,” Poetker said. “That’s all there is to it, and I’d die without it.”
He said that his kidneys are functioning at about 20 percent capacity and that he is in stage 4 kidney failure. He explained that his kidney problems are due to substances like hydrochloric acid that he was exposed to on the job.
“I have so many things wrong with me it’s not funny,” he said.
He also said that although he is hard of hearing he has been unable to get hearing aids. He indicated that he has been to the Department of Labor, Social Security, and others, but they said that he does not qualify for hearing aids.
Poetker said that most of his co-workers have already passed away.
“I’m one of the lucky few who is still alive. I don’t know why, but I still am. The good Lord is just looking out after me. That’s all there is to it.”
He indicated that many of his co-workers who are deceased had the same health issues he has. He said that he thinks one of the differences that caused them to pass away, while he is still alive, is that some of them smoked and he did not, explaining that the combination of breathing in asbestos, acids and other substances in addition to smoking may have resulted in their deaths.
Poetker said that he has good care with nurses who keep his medicine straight and make sure he eats all his meals. He indicated that as long as he has nurses who take care of him he will keep on going.
“I have really good care,” he said. “I have good nurses. If it weren’t for them, I would be in a nursing home and that would be just signing me a death warrant to stick me in a nursing home.”
He indicated that the level of care he needs would not be available in a nursing home where there are many patients, etc.
According to PCM, the new 36-step process prevents health care professionals from helping their patients with submitting the necessary paperwork, and, instead, sick, elderly workers must themselves fill out and navigate various forms to ensure medical and regulatory accuracy, and then mail the forms to the appropriate addressees.
Austin said that the Department of Labor rule changes are really designed so that the sick, former worker has to navigate the process, oftentimes on their own, calling and making requests, filling out forms, mailing them back, waiting to get forms mailed back to them, which he said is not typical of most healthcare authorization processes where healthcare professionals who deal with these issues “all the time typically help patients, and especially the sickest of patients, through these processes.”
“So it really is going to be a new burden on these former workers and will add to the slowdown and the potential for mistakes,” Austin said.
According to PCM, the DOL published its proposed rules in November 2015, opening a 60-day public comment period over the holiday season and offering only one stakeholder listening session — a session which excluded medical providers.
“PCM and many other stakeholders advocating on behalf of nuclear and uranium workers sought and received an extension to the comment period,” PCM stated. “This led to nearly 500 comments from workers, worker advocates, physicians, and the Advisory Board on Toxic Substance and Worker Health. The Advisory Board was established with bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by the President to advise DOL on how to improve the program. Most of the commenters objected to the proposed rule changes, but their comments were largely ignored.”
According to Austin, the area of proposed rule changes that received the most comments during the comment period was the section dealing with healthcare and the new authorization process.
“So they have received a number of comments from physicians, from healthcare providers like us, from former workers, from non-profit advocacy groups,” Austin said. “There were a lot of people and different organizations who were expressing concerns with this area of the regulations. Then they (the regulations) kind of sat idle for several years, without any information, and then suddenly on Feb. 8 this year they showed up again as final rules.”
“After we submitted, and many others submitted, all those comments back in 2015, we were hoping that the Department of Labor would use those comments to improve and clarify the rules so that they were consistent with the intention of the act (EEOICP), which was really to make sure that these sick, former workers get access to timely healthcare,” Austin commented. “Since that didn’t happen, we didn’t think there was any other choice other than to file a lawsuit.”
“We didn’t want to do that,” he added concerning the filing of the lawsuit. “Obviously, no one wants to have to do that, to take those measures. So now we’re hoping that we can get a judge to review these rules … We believe they are not consistent with the intent of the law, the EEOICP law, so we’re hoping a judge will help us strike down certain portions of the new rules in terms of the authorization process and the preauthorization process not being consistent with the law itself.”
According to Austin, the 36-step process that goes back-and-forth in the mail is “just rife for delays and confusion.”
“Then the physicians get confused who are already often frustrated with the cumbersome process that exists today, and this would even further complicate that,” he said.
PCM has posted information about the rule changes on the website of Cold War Patriots (CWP). CWP, a division of PCM, is a community resource and advocacy membership organization to help nuclear defense and uranium workers and their families get the recognition, compensation and health care they have earned. Visit coldwarpatriots.org/DOLchange for more information. Also, at this website is contact information so that people who want to help can call and/or email United States Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta to express opposition to the rule changes. A sample email is available. Secretary Acosta’s email address is email@example.com and toll free number is 866-301-0070.
According to PCM, patients affected by the rule changes live throughout the United States, with higher concentrations in states where nuclear facilities and uranium mines were located, including Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.
According to the Department of Labor, “The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) was enacted in October 2000. Part B of the EEOICPA, effective on July 31, 2001, compensates current or former employees (or their survivors) of the Department of Energy (DOE), its predecessor agencies, and certain of its vendors, contractors and subcontractors, who were diagnosed with a radiogenic cancer, chronic beryllium disease, beryllium sensitivity, or chronic silicosis, as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica while employed at covered facilities.
“The EEOICPA also provides compensation to individuals (or their eligible survivors) awarded benefits by the Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Part E of the EEOICPA (enacted October 28, 2004) compensates DOE contractor and subcontractor employees, eligible survivors of such employees, and uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters as defined by RECA Section 5, for any occupational illnesses that are causally linked to toxic exposures in the DOE or mining work environment.
“If you feel that you or a family member may qualify for benefits under the EEOICPA, please contact the Resource Center located in your region for assistance and to obtain claim forms.”
There is an EEOICPA resource center located in Portsmouth, Ohio, at 1200 Gay Street. Contact information — Email: firstname.lastname@example.org , Phone: (740) 353-6993, Toll Free Phone Number: (866) 363-6993, Fax: (740) 353-4707.
ACT FOR HEALTH, d/b/a PROFESSIONAL CASE MANAGEMENT, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR et al (Case 1:19-cv-00827)
The suit was filed in The United States District Court, District of Colorado on March 19, 2019, and can be viewed at coldwarpatriots.org/dolchange/lawsuit .