- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Certain former Idaho National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory-West workers are finally eligible to receive streamlined medical benefits and other compensation for radiation exposure, federal officials said Tuesday.

Two groups of Idaho workers will now be included in the nation’s “special exposure cohort.” The new designation allows the workers to more easily qualify to have medical bills paid by the government and receive a compensation check of $150,000. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted an online notice formalizing the decision Tuesday.

Workers newly covered under the cohort include those who worked at INL from 1970 through 1974 in areas where they were monitored for external radiation. The other group covered includes workers who spent time at Argonne National Laboratory-West facilities between 1951 and 1957.

To qualify, workers must also have at least one of 22 cancers linked to nuclear work and meet several other criteria.

It is the first time any INL employees have been included in the special exposure cohort. Dozens of other nuclear facilities have had groups of employees added to the cohort in recent years, reflecting the lasting health consequences caused by decades of U.S. nuclear research and production work.

The special exposure cohort was established under energy worker legislation approved by Congress in 2000, which aimed to compensate and provide medical benefits to workers who had suffered illnesses related to radiation exposure. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 also allowed for compensation to certain family members if the worker died.

INL workers have been able to apply for compensation under the Act before. But they faced a daunting challenge of proving to the government that they were exposed to certain levels of radiation in the workplace, and that the exposure was directly linked to cancer or other illnesses they suffered from.

About two out of three INL claims have been denied over the years, according to the Idaho Statesman, which reported on the issue last year as part of a larger project with McClatchy Newspapers that looked at deaths caused by radiation and chemical exposure.

And even when workers were approved to receive compensation and benefits, the approval process often took as long as four years, said Angela Hays Carey, community liaison with Nuclear Care Partners, a health care provider for nuclear workers. Some have died waiting for a verdict, she said.

For workers now part of the special exposure cohort, it could take as short as a month to get approved for compensation and benefits, Hays Carey said. She likened the compensation and benefits under the cohort as a sort of “retroactive workers’ compensation.”

Nobody could say for sure Tuesday about how many former workers or their family members may stand to benefit from the cohort additions.

“It’s so long ago, I wonder how much good it’s really going to do,” said Dan Obray, who works for the Building Trades Medical Screening Program, which screens local nuclear workers for cancers and other health problems. He mentioned that many of the workers, especially from the 1950s time frame, have died.

He said the cohort addition is a “good thing” for workers overall, “even though it’s not very broad.”

Tami Thatcher, a former nuclear safety analyst at INL, has followed the exposure cohort process closely. The process toward including INL employees in the cohort started about two years ago due to an employee petition made to Health and Human Services.

Thatcher said the addition of the INL workers is a positive. “It will mean claims get paid for those in the cohort,” she said.

But there is “fertile ground” for many more historical INL workplaces and time frames to be added, she said. Various historical reactor sites and cleanup areas such as the Radioactive Waste Management Complex had long histories of workers who were exposed to radiation and suffered the consequences, she said.

Federal labor and health officials did not immediately return calls seeking additional information Tuesday.

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