Former workers at Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs and at uranium and coal mines who can prove they suffer life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer and radiation poisoning, as a result of work-related exposure to hazardous materials are eligible for health benefits and compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).
But for many workers, gathering the proof to successfully file a claim can be a momentous task. Helping workers through this process and connecting them to other resources should their claims be denied is what sets Nuclear Care Partners apart from other providers, vice president of marketing and business development Tyler Skeen tells SFR.
"The unfortunate part of [the act] is that even though it was passed to help nuclear workers, the burden of proof falls on workers' heads," says Skeen. Nuclear Care Providers exclusively serves former US Department of Energy workers and has offices in several other states. In May, it opened its first office in Albuquerque to serve patients within a 100-mile radius, which includes Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs. Territory around Farmington, where large concentrations of the population suffer negative consequences of the uranium mining industry, are not part of its covered area, though Skeen says the provider hopes to expand to a second office in San Juan County in the future.
Claimants in New Mexico are eligible to receive care from a wide variety of providers, including mental health care, acupuncture and hospice services, in addition to the specific medical treatments their illnesses require. Yet few of these providers specialize exclusively in serving former atomic workers.
This is where Nuclear Care Partners sees a niche in New Mexico it can help fill, says Skeen. In addition to nursing care, a crucial part of NCP's role, Skeen says, is as a resource for helping guide former atomic workers through the process of filing claims or finding appropriate care if their claims are denied.
"We have a network of authorized representatives who know the system in the Department of Labor to help these folks, we more or less become a resource to help point them in the right direction and basically hold their hand in what can be a very cumbersome and sometimes difficult process," says Skeen.
New Mexico files nearly twice the number of claims as any other state, but Skeen says that nationally, around 50% of claims are denied.
To have a claim approved, a worker must have a diagnosis of one of the cancers and other illnesses recognized by the US Department of Labor as a side effect of exposure to hazardous materials. They then need to prove that the illness is a result of work-related exposure. For this they need a doctor's signature on documents stating that the diagnosis can be traced back to their work history, as well as documentation from the worksite tracking accidents and instances of worker exposure.
This is where things get tricky. The process is easier for claimants who file as members of a Special Exposure Cohort, meaning that they worked in a specific location over a specific period of time in which the government acknowledges that most workers were exposed to unsafe conditions. This applies to employees who worked at Los Alamos National Labs from March 15, 1943 to Dec. 31, 1995, and at Sandia National Labs for most years before 1996. People who worked at the labs during these periods of time don't have to provide as much documentation of workplace conditions.
Workers whose illnesses could be the result of exposure over the last 25 years rely on the labs to correctly track and document any abnormal radiation levels or accidents. A series of reports by the Center for Public Integrity published in 2017 exposed some serious safety concerns at weapons labs across the country, including numerous safety lapses, minor accidents and failures to provide adequate documentation of such events at LANL over the last two decades, which could indicate that workers have experienced more instances of toxic exposure than they can find proof for in lab records, and may not be able to receive benefits when they receive life-threatening diagnoses further down the line.
The issue was highlighted in a profile published by the Santa Fe New Mexican in collaboration with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network of Chad Walde, a Los Alamos worker who passed away in 2017 from a brain tumor. He was 44 years old. Though the federal government denied his claims due to insufficient proof that his brain tumor was the result of exposure at the labs, Walde told journalist Rebecca Moss that many instances of exposure were not formally recorded by the labs.