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GAO review finds downwinder compensation wanting

But Department of Justice acting within law, it says

SHARE GAO review finds downwinder compensation wanting

WASHINGTON — Don't blame the Justice Department for high denial rates and delays in a program to compensate downwind cancer victims of atomic testing.

A congressional review says that department is simply administering compensation programs within the law and limits imposed by Congress.

However, the U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, does say Justice could do a better job in reaching out to likely victims to let them know they may qualify for $50,000 to $150,000.

Such reviews of how Justice handles the program are now required periodically by amendments that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, passed last year to the compensation program first created in 1990. Those amendments also expanded the list of eligible diseases, and made it easier to apply for money.

Hatch pushed the amendments after a Deseret News series showed that most Utahns who believe they should qualify for compensation don't because the law says they had the wrong cancer, lived a few miles the wrong direction, or were too old or young at the time of the open-air atomic bomb tests upwind in Nevada.

The GAO's review said Justice generally is living within guidelines and deadlines set by Congress, but reported high rates of denials and sometimes long delays for victims seeking money.

For example, it said half the people who apply for compensation of all types are denied.

Through the end of fiscal 2000, it said 46 percent of those who had applied were denied; another 46 percent were approved; and 8 percent still had their applications pending.

But it said Justice appeared to be applying the law as written.

For "downwinders" — or people exposed to fallout downwind from tests — it said 49 percent of claims denied failed because applicants did not have an "eligible disease"; 21 percent came because they could not prove they were in designated areas during required periods; and 17 percent were denied because they were under or over required ages when first exposed to radiation.

For uranium miners, it said 53 percent of those denied claims did not meet the minimum required exposure to radiation, and another 21 percent did not contract an eligible type of cancer. The government knew the miners would likely contract cancer from the mines, but did not warn them.

Hatch's amendments last year lowered the required radiation exposure requirements for uranium miners. It also added numerous types of cancer to the list of eligible diseases.

However, compensation for downwinders is still limited to those who lived only in a few counties in southern Utah, Arizona and Nevada — even though fallout maps showed many other areas were hit with as much or more radiation by some tests, including heavily populated areas along the Wasatch Front.

Hatch ran into opposition to expanding boundaries because of high costs it would bring. The program has paid $245.1 million in compensation to 5,150 victims or their survivors, the GAO said.

The GAO noted that Justice is supposed to resolve claims within a year, and did so in 89 percent of the cases. It said those that went longer were usually extended to allow applicants to provide additional information to avoid denials.

The GAO said Justice was also generally prompt in making payments for claims that were approved, until the program ran out of money last year. Some victims had to wait more than a year for Congress to replenish money in the fund so they could be paid.

The GAO said about half the victims' groups it contacted were critical of outreach programs by Justice, and said it had done little to find potential victims and provide extra help in the application process.

The GAO did note that Justice has a toll-free number for those seeking help, 1-800-729-7327. It also has a site on the Internet with information and forms. That site is: www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/index.htm.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com