On Your Side Investigation exposes more problems with law meant to compensate sick SRS workers

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- An On Your Side investigation is trying to help cut the red tape that has a lot of people feeling tangled in a system that’s not working for them. It has to do with a law that compensates Savannah River Site workers who got sick on the job.

The law also promises to take care of survivors. We’ve been helping local families since this summer, and some are already getting their checks. I got a call recently from a man who recently received $50,000.

His father died years ago after years of service at SRS. He was emotional and did not want to go on camera, but another survivor does. She was denied but thinks her story could help others.

"He was so cool. Everybody loved my daddy,” Sheri Floyd remembered with a smile. She says her daddy loved everybody back.

"Gosh, he must have taught the whole town how to water ski.”

That thought makes her laugh, but that laughter quickly turns to tears as she talks about her broken heart and what she believes is a broken promise.

Sheri: ”No, time does not heal wounds. I mean, how do you get over the person you loved most in your life? It's just not possible."
Meredith: "And then for the Government to slam door after door in your face?”
Sheri: "Well, I've been denied 3 times."

Sheri was denied for compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act . Congress passed the EEOICPA to help energy workers like Clyde Floyd who were exposed to harmful radiation or contamination on the job. He spent 3 decades at Savannah River Site.

"The cancer was now in his lungs and he had multiple brain tumors, and they said there was nothing they could do for him,” Sheri said.

Maybe doctors couldn't do anything, but the government could have. SRS is what's known as a Special Cohort under the EEOICPA. It puts those with an approved illness on the fast-track for approval if they worked at SRS between 1953 and 1972. Mr. Floyd was there for all but 2 of those years.

"Daddy was still alive, and I said, ‘Daddy, you've got to apply for this.’”

If approved, he could have received up to $400,000 plus medical benefits, but he never got the chance. Clyde Floyd passed away in May of 2001.

Meredith: "And you're certain SRS is to blame?"
Sheri: "The government said that his work caused his death."  

It's something the government is saying more often and to more people than expected.

"I do believe there has been a surprise that maybe more people were exposed than what we originally thought as well as more people have illnesses arising from those exposures," said Malcolm Nelson, the Ombudsman for the EEOICPA.

And from what we've found, that surprise is a bit of an understatement.

Buried in a Senate hearing more than a decade old, we uncovered a cost estimate for the program before it became law in 2000.

The then-Secretary of Energy suggested it would cost $120 million a year for the first three years but then rapidly decline after that. 

Nope. Not even close.

As of this month, it’s more than $13 billion and that's just in claims and medical bills. It doesn't even count what it costs to run the program.

According to the 2016 budget, that's at least 133 million this year alone.It makes you wonder: is this a reason 70 percent of SRS claims are denied?

We asked Mr. Nelson: “The money comes out of the Treasury, and I've been assured that there's no consideration of money when determining claims."

Sheri, however, says there seems to be little consideration of the applicants. "My denial letter went to an old address, and I didn't get the letter until after the 30 day deadline to appeal."

A government investigation from earlier this year found similar examples. A report from the Government Accountability Office reported a claim was delayed because an incorrect address for a district office. It also discovered a district office had not responded to two requests to reopen denied claims.

“It (the EEOICPA) was to honor the workers, but what they're doing is dragging them through the mud of a pile of paperwork and 30 day deadlines,“ said Sheri. Some, like Sheri's dad, become to sick to apply.

Meredith: "There are people dying of cancer. They can't be expected to file something like this."
Sheri: "So they can hire anyone. They are limited to 2%." 

Under the law, applicants can hire lawyers or people like Sheri to file on behalf of those seeking compensation. "All I know is what I keep reading in these claims, and I see a pattern."

The Special Cohort dates, she says, are part of that pattern. We’ve seen it on claims, too, where the worker would have surely been approved if they worked at SRS in the 1970s instead of the 1980s.

Sheri: ”All because it turned 1973, it doesn't mean all the contamination went 'poof.' No. They're still removing all the stuff.”
Meredith: "Why do you think they don't include those dates? Because it would mean more approvals?"
Sheri: "Oh yeah. They'd have to pay more people."

They'd also have to pay people more if they sped up the process. An approved claim pays more for the person with the illness. Survivors don't get the full amount. We asked Mr. Nelson if that's a way to save money. "They do realize that if the worker passes away before that money is paid, it could affect the amount of compensation that is paid,” he said

Sheri ended up with nothing; she was denied. Other family members were approved. However, she says it’s not about the money. It’s about a flawed program.

"Getting $115,000 is not worth my daddy's life. Is that all he was worth? No,” she said.

Right now, there is a petition making its way through the system to extend the years of the Special Cohort. I asked Mr. Nelson about this, and he said it is on his radar. You can bet it’s on our radar too.

Read the original version of this article at www.wrdw.com.