Radiation Exposure Compensation Act:

Program Status

GAO-05-1002R: Published: Sep 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2005.

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Paul L. Jones
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From 1945 through 1962, the United States conducted a series of above-ground atomic weapons tests as it built up its Cold War nuclear arsenal. Many people who were exposed to radiation resulting from the nuclear weapons development and testing program subsequently developed serious diseases, including various types of cancer. On October 15, 1990, in order to establish a procedure to make partial restitution to these victims for their suffering associated with the radiation exposure, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was enacted. RECA provided that the Attorney General be responsible for processing and adjudicating claims under the act. The Department of Justice (DOJ) established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program (RECP), which is administered by its Civil Division. RECP began processing claims in April 1992. RECA has been amended several times, including on July 10, 2000, when the RECA Amendments of 2000 were enacted. The amendments of 2000 broadened the scope of eligibility for benefits coverage to include new victim categories and modified the criteria for determining eligibility for compensation. The 2000 amendments also included a mandate that we report to the Congress on DOJ's administration of RECA not later than 18 months after the enactment of the amendments and every 18 months thereafter. We have reported twice previously on DOJ's administration of RECA. In our last report, we identified the potential for a funding shortage in the compensation trust fund. We recommended that the Attorney General consult with the congressional committees of jurisdiction to develop a strategy to address the gap between current funding levels and the amount of funding estimated to be needed to pay claims projected to be approved over the 2003 to 2011 period. This report follows up on our previous recommendation and updates information on the status of the RECA program, including the (1) status of funds available to pay claims and pay program administration costs; (2) status of claims approved, denied, and pending; (3) processing times; and (4) the total of compensation awards.

In April 2003, we reported that projected funding estimates to pay RECA claims may be inadequate and recommended that DOJ work with Congress to address the funding requirements. After that report, Congress took legislative actions to ensure that the RECA program would have sufficient funding to pay approved claims for the life of the program. According to the DOJ Civil Division's Fiscal Year 2006 Performance Budget submission, the actions taken by Congress will ensure that the RECA program is fully funded for 2005 and in future years. In our last report, we stated that the administrative expense appropriation for RECP of about $2 million was insufficient to keep up with the number of claims submitted in fiscal years 2001 and 2002. However, several legislative changes were made starting with appropriations for fiscal year 2003, to help ensure sufficient administrative funding would be available to meet future claims processing demands. First, for fiscal year 2003, appropriations for the programs administrative expenses were no longer contained, as was the case in previous years, in a separate account and were instead included within DOJ's Salaries and Expenses, General Legal Activities account. In addition, while the fiscal year 2002 appropriation included a specific amount for administrative expenses, the fiscal year 2003 administrative expenses provision contained a specific minimum amount. When RECP reviews a claim, the review process ends in one of two possible outcomes--approval or denial of the claim. For approved onsite participant and downwinder claims, the claim is forwarded to the Treasury for payment. In the case of uranium worker claims, approved claims are forwarded to the Department of Labor for payment. If denied, applicants may refile their claims or pursue an administrative appeal which is handled by the agency. Of the total 22,206 claims filed, RECP reached a disposition on 20,403. The remaining 1,803, or about 8 percent of claims, were pending, as of June 19, 2005. We compared the claims processing times reported to us by DOJ in June of 2005, with the processing times at the time of our last report. Claims processing times improved for four out of the five categories of claimants. The only category that does not show an improved average processing time is on-site participant claims. Through June 19, 2005, RECP had approved $926.4 million in awards to claimants. Payment approvals include $455.8 million based on downwinder applications; $340.8 million to eligible individuals based on uranium mine employee applications; $63.6 million based on on-site participant applications; $55.0 million based on uranium miller applications; and $11.2 million based on ore transporter applications.

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