Energy Employees Compensation:

Obstacles Remain in Processing Cases Efficiently and Ensuring a Source of Benefit Payments

GAO-04-571T: Published: Mar 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2004.

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Robert E. Robertson
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The Department of Energy (Energy) and its predecessor agencies and contractors have employed thousands of people in the nuclear weapons production complex. Some employees were exposed to toxic substances, including radioactive and hazardous materials, during this work, and many subsequently developed illnesses. Subtitle D of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 allows Energy to help its contractor employees file state workers' compensation claims for illnesses determined by a panel of physicians to be caused by exposure to toxic substances in the course of employment at an Energy facility. Congress mandated that GAO study the effectiveness of the benefit program under Subtitle D of this Act. This testimony is based on GAO's ongoing work on this issue and focuses on four key areas: (1) the number, status, and characteristics of claims filed with Energy; (2) the extent to which Energy policies and procedures help employees file timely claims for these state benefits; (3) the extent to which there will be a "willing payer" of workers' compensation benefits, that is, an insurer who--by order from or agreement with Energy--will not contest these claims; and (4) a framework that could be used for evaluating possible options for changing the program.

During the first 2 1/2 years of the program, ending December 31, 2003, Energy had completely processed about 6 percent of the more than 23,000 cases that had been filed. Energy had begun processing of nearly 35 percent of cases, but processing had not yet begun on nearly 60 percent of the cases. While Energy got off to a slow start in processing cases, it is now processing enough cases that there is a backlog of cases waiting for review by a physician panel. Energy has taken some steps intended to reduce this backlog, such as reducing the number of physicians needed for some panels. Nonetheless, a shortage of qualified physicians continues to constrain the agency's capacity to decide cases more quickly. Consequently, claimants will likely continue to experience lengthy delays in receiving the determinations they need to file workers' compensation claims. GAO estimates that more than half of the cases associated with Energy facilities in 9 states that account for more than three-quarters of all Subtitle D cases filed are likely to have a willing payer of benefits. Another quarter of the cases in these 9 states, while not technically having a willing payer, have workers' compensation coverage provided by an insurer that has stated that it will not contest these claims. However, the remaining 20 percent of cases lack willing payers and are likely to be contested, which means that many of these cases may be less likely to receive compensation. Because of data limitations, these percentages provide an order of magnitude estimate of the extent to which claimants will have willing payers. The estimates are not a prediction of actual benefit outcomes for claimants. In this testimony, GAO also provides a framework for evaluating potential options for changing the program to address the willing payer issue. This framework includes a range of issues that would help the Congress assess options if it chooses to change the current program. One of these issues in particular--the federal cost implications--should be carefully considered in the context of the current federal fiscal environment.

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