With the recent passing of Sen. Orrin Hatch, his incomparable legislative legacy has been discussed across the nation and throughout Utah. As providers of in-home health care for those who have been exposed to uranium, we pause to pay tribute to Orrin Hatch who, together with former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program in 1990. The RECA program provides one-time benefit payments to victims of radiation exposure from the development and testing of nuclear weapons. 

As frontline providers of health care to affected uranium miners, we have witnessed first-hand the tragic consequences of radiation exposure, which has killed thousands, destroyed the health of thousands more and has visited tragedy on family members whose loved ones worked heroically to win the Cold War.

Unbeknown to them, uranium workers were exposed in mines, mills and transporting the radioactive substances. They did not know the extreme danger of uranium exposure until it was too late. These workers deserve our thanks, compassion and care as they struggle to deal with the consequences of the hazards caused by their working environment and the radioactive substances.

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The Beehive State continues to lead the way in updating and expanding the RECA program. In March 2021, the Utah State Legislature passed and Gov. Spencer Cox signed a concurrent resolution (HCR18) supporting the extension and expansion of the RECA program. And a few weeks ago, the Utah congressional delegation supported Sen. Mike Lee’s bill to extend the RECA program until May 2024 (previously slated to expire in July).

While the program’s reauthorization is a good first step, there is still more work to be done for uranium workers. Currently, only uranium workers who mined on or before Dec. 31, 1971, are eligible for RECA benefits. 

But what about those uranium workers who were exposed to radiation on Jan. 1, 1972? Did working conditions and warnings about uranium exposure simply change overnight? 

Unfortunately, they did not. 

Although a standard for safe radiation exposure was promulgated in 1969, the federal government was slow to enforce the measure and uranium mine inspections were spotty if they occurred at all. Even the standard itself has come under scrutiny for its inadequacy in protecting miners. This was confirmed in a 1987 report in which the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated that the standard did not reduce the acceptable radiation exposure for uranium miners. 

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We think of our friend, Winn Wescott, a post-1971 uranium worker. In August 2021, he participated in a roundtable discussion with Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, in which he passionately represented post-1971 uranium workers and explained why they must not be forgotten in RECA reform discussions. Just three months after the roundtable discussion, Wescott passed away. Sadly, his story is not unique; many are still waiting for legislative relief. And time is working against them. 

The treatments required to live any semblance of a normal life are costly and out of reach for many of those suffering with radiation exposure. We cannot afford to wait another year or two to make this right. We plead with Congress to not allow this two-year extension to be the final word on RECA. There are still common sense, scientifically-driven changes that need to be made to ensure that the RECA program remains viable for those who, through no fault of their own, have suffered from radiation illnesses.

We call upon our Utah congressional delegation to convene like-minded lawmakers around the negotiating table to reach a legislative compromise for those who have been forgotten. After all, that’s what Orrin Hatch, the father of RECA, would have done.

Chad Shumway is president & CEO of United Energy Workers Healthcare-Four Corners Healthcare. Casey Craig is co-founder and CEO of Giving Home Health Care. Both companies provide in-home health care to Utah’s uranium workers.

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