Energy Employees Compensation:

Adjustments Made to Contracted Review Process, But Additional Oversight and Planning Would Aid the Advisory Board in Meeting Its Statutory Responsibilities

GAO-06-177: Published: Feb 10, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 2006.

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Robert E. Robertson
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For the last several decades, the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies and contractors have employed thousands of individuals in secret and dangerous work in the atomic weapons industry. In 2000, Congress enacted the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act to compensate those individuals who have developed cancer or other specified diseases related to on-the-job exposure to radiation and other hazards at these work sites. Under Subtitle B, determining the eligibility of claimants for compensation is a complex process, involving several federal agencies and a reconstruction of the historical evidence available. The Department of Labor must consider a claimant's case based on records of his or her employment and work activities, which are provided by the Department of Energy. Labor considers the compensability of certain claims by relying on estimates of the likely radiation levels to which particular workers were exposed. These "dose reconstructions" are developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). NIOSH also compiles information in "site profiles" about the radiation protection practices and hazardous materials used at various plants and facilities, which helps complete the dose reconstructions. Because certain facilities are known to have exposed employees to radiation while keeping few records of individuals' exposure, their employees have been designated under the law as members of a "special exposure cohort," and their claims may be paid without individual dose reconstructions. The law also allows the Secretary of HHS to add additional groups of employees to the special exposure cohort. For quality control and to raise public confidence in the fairness of the claims process, the compensation act also created a citizen's advisory board of scientists, physicians, and employee representatives--the President's Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. Members of the board serve part-time and the board has limited staff support. The advisory board is tasked to review the scientific validity and quality of NIOSH's dose reconstructions and advise the Secretary of HHS. The board has the flexibility to determine the scope and methodology for this review. We assessed how well the advisory board's review and the contracted work with SC&A are proceeding. We focused on three questions: (1) Are the roles of key federal officials involved in the review of NIOSH's dose reconstructions sufficiently independent to assure the objectivity of the review? (2) Have the agency's management controls and the advisory board's oversight been sufficient to ensure that the contract to review site profiles and dose reconstructions is adequately carried out? and (3) Is the advisory board using the contractor's expertise in reviewing special exposure cohort petitions?

The roles of certain key federal officials initially involved in the advisory board's review of the dose reconstructions may not have been sufficiently independent and actions were taken to replace these officials. Nonetheless, continued diligence by HHS is required to prevent such problems from recurring as new candidates are considered for these roles. Initially, the project officer assigned responsibility for reviewing the monthly progress reports and monitoring the technical performance of the contractor was also a manager of the NIOSH dose reconstruction program being reviewed. In addition, the designated federal officer for the advisory board, who is responsible for scheduling and attending board meetings, was the director of the dose reconstruction program being reviewed. The progress of the contracted review of NIOSH's site profiles and dose reconstructions has been hindered by the complexity of the work. Specifically, in the first 2 years, the contractor spent almost 90 percent of the $3 million that had been allocated to the contract for a 5-year undertaking. Various adjustments have been made in the review approach in light of the identified complexities, which were not initially understood. However, further improvements could be made in the oversight and planning of the review process. With regard to reviewing special exposure cohort petitions, the advisory board has asked for and received the contractor's assistance, expanded its charge, and acknowledged the need for the board to review the petitions in a timely manner. The board has reviewed eight petitions as of October 2005, and the contractor assisted with six of these by reviewing the site profiles associated with the facilities. The contractor will play an expanded role by reviewing some of the other submitted petitions and NIOSH's evaluation of those petitions and recommending to the advisory board whether the petitioning group should be added to the special exposure cohort. The contractor will also develop procedures for the advisory board to use when reviewing petitions. While NIOSH is generally required by law to complete its review of a petition within 180 days of determining that the petition has met certain initial qualification requirements, the advisory board has no specified deadline for its review of petitions. However, the board has discussed the fact that special exposure cohort petition reviews have required more time and effort than originally estimated and that the advisory board needs to manage its workload in order to reach timely decisions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS developed more integrated and comprehensive data on contractor spending levels compared to work completed, and has the contractor provide it to the Advisory Board in its monthly contract progress reports.

    Recommendation: To assist the advisory board meet its statutory responsibilities, the Secretary of HHS should direct the contracting and project officers to develop and share with the advisory board more integrated and comprehensive data on contractor spending levels compared to work completed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS has explored mechanisms for providing staff support to the advisory board, such as Presidential Management Fellows, while considering the need for such support. HHS noted that advisory board members have deliberated periodically at board meetings about the appropriate scope of the board's future workload.

    Recommendation: To assist the advisory board meet its statutory responsibilities, the Secretary of HHS should consider the need for providing HHS staff to collect and analyze pertinent information that would help the advisory board comprehensively reexamine its long-term plan for assessing the NIOSH site profiles and dose reconstructions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NIOSH and the Board have implemented a modification to the tracking matrix that includes columns for "NIOSH action" and "Status".

    Recommendation: To ensure that the findings and recommendations of the advisory board and the contractor are promptly resolved, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Director of NIOSH to establish a system to track the actions taken by the agency in response to these findings and recommendations and update the advisory board periodically on the status of such actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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