Source: Dayton Daily News | Hannah Poturalski | May 16, 2015
Thousands of Ohioans part of federal compensation program.
It took two years and 10 attempts but Bob Haller of Trenton finally struck “gold.”
The 67-year-old former employee of the now-razed Mound Plant in Miamisburg is just one of over 106,000 nuclear plant workers in the nation to be granted federal medical benefits and compensation after developing illnesses from exposure to radiation while on the job.
At the Mound Plant where Haller worked for 28 years, up to 2,000 workers made plutonium detonators for nuclear weapons. Their work was classified, Haller said.
When Haller started at the plant in 1973, he did janitorial work for several years before moving to laundry with the responsibility of washing the contaminated, or “hot,” clothes and uncontaminated clothes worn by the workers.
He finished his years at the Mound in the early 2000s as a demolition tech helping in the demolition process.
“It was so full of plutonium,” Haller said. “We had just shorts, no safety gear. They said we didn’t need safety protection.”
Haller said for many years the plant workers were required to wear dosimeter badges to check their levels of radiation exposure before they could be cleared to leave at the end of each shift.
But near the end, Haller said the company stopped using dosimeter badges and checking the workers for unsafe levels of radiation.
“They never checked when we left plant site if we were contaminated,” Haller said. “We would dump these big loads of contaminated soil and it would get on my legs.”
Soil contamination at the Mound includes plutonium, thorium and tritium, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program launched in 2001 and has since paid out over $11.5 billion for compensation and medical bills to those workers or their survivors.
There are about 360 sites in the U.S. where current or former energy workers are eligible to make claims if they’ve developed an illness that may be related to exposure on the job, said Rachel Leiton, director of the Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation.
It was determined that Bob Haller’s development of ataxia, a neurological disorder, was due to his exposure to radiation on the job. He was granted a lump sum as well as a medical benefits card that’s “like gold.”
But that wasn’t until a lengthy process of submitting claim after claim — facing denial after denial — until sufficient evidence of exposure and causation was established for the Department of Labor to approve his claim.
“They had come up with numerous excuses,” Haller said. “They don’t want to put the essence of burden on the plant. They want you to give up.”
Haller’s illness involves a lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements, causing him to fall a lot.
Leiton said the most common illnesses cited in the 268,461 claims nationally are over 20 radiogenic cancers, including pancreas and colon, in Part B and lung conditions such as chronic beryllium disease, chronic silicosis and pulmonary fibrosis in Part E of the program.
“It can be really hard for them to breathe,” Leiton said of beryllium disease. “They need oxygen, medications and to be monitored. It can be real tough for them.”
About 49 percent of claims to the energy illness compensation program are approved, according to data on its website. Leiton said the program grows by $1 billion in payouts each year.
“We would like to get cases out the door as quickly as possible and thoroughly. It shouldn’t take 10 times,” Leiton said, citing cases like Haller’s.
Haller said the process for getting a claim approved included the need for a letter of medical necessity from a doctor. He said this can sometimes be difficult due to doctors being “reluctant” of all the paperwork that must be produced.
“Doctors have no knowledge what goes into a nuclear site,” Haller said. “Many doctors are not familiar with the toxic materials, areas you worked in, jobs you performed.”
Haller said his physician had to produce a 48-page report on his illness. His hearing included seven witnesses and photo evidence. He said approved claimants must continue to submit letters of medical necessity every six months to prove the continued need for assistance.
“Lots die in the process of claims,” said Haller, who has had friends die while waiting for claims to be approved.
About 50 percent of claims to the energy illness compensation program are survivors of the energy workers who have died, Leiton said.
David M. Manuta, president of Manuta Chemical Consulting, Inc. in southern central Ohio, said he’s worked on excess of 20 cases across the country, including Haller’s, to get claims approved. About 40 percent of his caseload as a consultant is dedicated to this energy illness compensation program.
“I can make an assessment based on what they did, the buildings they were in, their job classification to get an understanding of employees’ conditions and work with medical professionals to make a linkage between what’s in the doctor’s office and what the exposure is,” Manuta said.
Since getting his medical benefits card in 2014, Haller has gotten access to health care providers; home modification, including a wheelchair ramp and added rails at steps; durable medical equipment of a medical bed, wheelchair and walker; and an emergency monitoring and response program.
“I’m waiting on a scooter,” Haller said. “The ramps, rails, everything is medically prescribed. My mobility is very limited.”
Haller is also a client of Critical Nurse Staffing, Inc., a national company providing in-home care to former energy workers since 2006. His medical card covers the cost of Cathy Hunter, a home health nurse, to come once a week.
Medical cards granted to former energy workers also cover the cost of prescriptions and doctor’s appointments with no deductibles or copays, said Tiffanee Moyer, community outreach specialist at Critical Nurse Staffing.
CNS, which specifically works with energy illness program participants, will also pay the wages for a spouse or loved one to be trained to provide home care. Haller’s wife Sandy, whom he met working at the Mound, is now a certified nurse aid for her husband. She helps with activities of daily living.
“These people sacrificed their health for the betterment of the country, and it was secret,” Moyer said.
Haller, as well as dedicated staff at CNS, are among those spreading the word to raise awareness among former and current energy workers and their surviving spouses and adult children.
He said a group of former energy workers meet once a month at an area Golden Corral, and often Moyer will attend to share resources and answer questions.
“My life’s dream is to help those who can’t help themselves,” Haller said. “Our main objective is to help as many people as possible.”
When the program began in the 2000s, Leiton said the Department of Labor did “a lot of outreach” across the country to alert eligible workers. There are now 600 DOL employees and 11 resource centers around the country, including Portsmouth, Ohio, that continue outreach and help with claims.
Leiton said there’s also a joint outreach task force between the federal Departments of Labor, Energy and Health and Human Services.
In Part B of the program, nearly 100 of the eligible nuclear plants in the U.S. — including Fernald Feed Materials Production Center in Ross Twp. and the Mound — have special exposure cohorts, in which claimants meeting certain criteria are automatically compensated without a radiation dose reconstruction or determination of the probability of causation, according to Leiton.
Those criteria could include having one of 22 cancers and worked at least 250 days, Leiton said. The three largest special exposure cohorts include gaseous diffusion plants in Portsmouth, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Paducah, Ky.
“We assume the cancer is related to radiation,” Leiton said. “In the special exposure cohort, there’s a higher likelihood they will get paid.”
Manuta said some cases within special exposure cohorts can be completed within three months, others like Bob Haller’s go years.
“A lot of people give up, but Bob doesn’t give up,” Manuta said. “People didn’t go to work with the intention of getting sick. If Bob’s claim had been approved earlier, his degree of disability would be less than it is.”
Leiton said if an employee’s illness is terminal their claim will be expedited.
“We’ve seen lives changed; families who are able to have a little support after the death of a loved one,” Leiton said.
Leiton said she believes the rate of claims will begin to decline over the years as safety measures have improved at the remaining energy plants in the U.S. The Department of Labor was unable to provide a figure for the number of eligible nuclear plants still operating today by this newspaper’s print deadline.
Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program
By the Numbers
$11.5 billion* paid out nationally for compensation and medical bills
106,397 unique individual workers paid nationally
$863.5 million paid out to 8,795 Ohio workers
$236.8 million paid to 2,676 workers of the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center in Ross Twp.
$128.8 million paid to 1,384 workers of the Mound Plant in Miamisburg
Source: U.S. Department of Labor
*Figures as of May 10, 2015