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Sick and denied care at Hanford: ‘We want our lives back'

The former plutonium production facility is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, yet workers who become sick from exposure to toxins there are routinely denied the help they need to treat and manage their illnesses.

Hanford is the most dangerous job site in the state.

Workers are charged with digging up, packaging and transporting highly radioactive debris. They demolish old buildings littered with carcinogens such as asbestos, lead, and beryllium. Others oversee the storage and monitoring of millions of gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated liquid waste stored in aging underground tanks.

The contents of those tanks are considered the most lethal substances on the planet. The former plutonium production facility is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, yet workers who become sick from exposure to toxins there are routinely denied the help they need to treat and manage their illnesses.

Interviews with dozens of sick workers and studies going back a decade conducted by government-hired experts and advocacy groups detail a worker compensation program at Hanford fraught with injustices: inaccurate science used to deny claims, aggressive legal battles waged by the federal government for those who fight the system, handpicked doctors drawing conclusions without complete medical records, and a colossal amount of confusing red-tape for workers already struggling to deal with serious health problems.

“You’re fighting to retain your memory, your mind, your health and you’re having to fight tooth, claw and nail against this (system),” said Melinda Rouse. Rouse is the wife of a former Hanford worker who is diagnosed with occupational induced dementia. His worker compensation claims for the illness have been denied.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) owns Hanford, where the mission is to clean up the toxic legacy left behind by more than four decades of production for the country’s nuclear weapons program.

“We want our life back. (The Dept. of Energy) stole it. You stole (my husband’s) ability to provide for his family. And I want my life back. I am never going to shut up until I get this (information) out there,” said Rouse.

Hanford’s special agreement with the state

At Hanford, the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries doesn’t manage the site’s worker compensation program. A special agreement between the state and federal government, as provided by RCW 51.04.130, allows the DOE to run its own program as long as the state determines it’s in the “national interest.” The DOE contracts with an outside company, Penser North America, to screen and filter the claims. Prior to Penser, the Texas-based Contract Claims Service Incorporated (CCSI) carried out this function. Workers and experts report little improvement since this self-insured arrangement went into effect in 2000.

Studies find system broken for years

A trail of studies conducted since 2,000 detail historic deficiencies with Hanford’s worker compensation program.

A detailed study by the Government Accountability Project in 2006, Systemic Injustice, recommended the agreement between the state and DOE be scrapped. “(The report) documents the Department of Energy’s demonstrated pattern of interference with Hanford workers’ claims, its inability to effectively oversee (its contractor) and its ongoing failure to resolve concerns that workers have raised since 2000 when…DOE became responsible for reviewing workers’ claims,” wrote the study authors.

A 2004 audit by the Dept. of Energy’s Inspector General found “inconsistent or inaccurate” on-the-job illness and injury data being reported to DOE by two contractors at Hanford. The contractors were found to be under-reporting days away from work due to occupational injury.

A performance review conducted by the state Dept. of Labor and Industries in 2006 uncovered claims examiners not actively pursuing medical reports that could help make accurate recommendations. The auditors also found files lacking medical control and unfulfilled contractual obligations to review claims every 30 days.

A 2014 Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report authored by the DOE’s Savannah River National Laboratory concluded inappropriate scientific methods are being used in the collection of chemical vapor exposure data that is then used against workers in denying claims. The team of experts said the data is “inadequate” in determining if an injury is work related. They even recommended that all previous worker comp decisions should be re-examined. “Previous medical determinations should be re-visited based on a more thorough understanding of the uses and limitations of (Hanford’s) monitoring data,” wrote the DOE’s own experts.

Records obtained by KING 5 from the state’s Dept. of Labor and Industries show that since Penser took over the contract in 2008, on average, worker compensation claims at Hanford have been rejected at a rate 52% higher than the state average.

“That doesn’t make sense at all,” said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of the advocacy group Hanford Challenge. “It doesn’t add up. The fact is this is the most dangerous worksite in America. And yet we treat them like this? We throw them on the garbage heap and deny them medical care. It’s unacceptable.”

Accused of being “a liar”

Over the years Hanford workers have come down with remarkably similar problems. Diseases include toxic encephalopathy (dementia), reactive airway disease, chronic beryllium disease, nerve damage, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asbestosis, and certain cancers. Yet workers say when they apply for help through worker’s comp, they’re made to feel as though they’re trying to game the system.

“They say it didn’t happen out there, I’m a liar,” said former worker Lonnie Rouse.

“Unless you have a bone sticking out of your arm, they’re not going to accept your claim,” said Dave Klug, a current Hanford worker diagnosed with occupational asthma and thyroid cancer. “I felt like a criminal…They threaten you that you’re going to have to pay (the doctor bills) back if your claim is denied.”

“Along with being an employer for thousands of people, DOE’s Hanford Site has also been a community. No worker imagined being abandoned by the system after becoming ill or injured on the job, being accused of raising false safety concerns, being repeatedly told that their injury was pre-existing and not work related, or being forced to hire a lawyer to secure their rightful compensation claims,” wrote the authors of Systemic Injustice.

According to state law, only the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries can officially deny a medical claim submitted by a Hanford worker. But claims processors for the state must rely on the information and recommendation passed on to them by Penser.

Penser denied interview requests by KING 5, but a company executive sent an email about the process.

“As human beings we all empathize with anyone who is suffering from a medical issue, especially when that medical issue is severe and can impact a person’s ability to work and provide for themselves and their family,” wrote Patty Hicks, the branch manager for Penser in Richland. She also said they are bound by state law in their determinations. “…for any real change to occur regarding the Washington State workers’ compensation claim process our legislature must make those changes,” wrote Hicks.

Drawn out battles for help often lead to workers hiring attorneys on their own dime, while Hanford’s contractors have their legal bills covered by the Dept. of Energy. Many workers tells us they’ve gone broke paying for lawyers as well as medical bills and expensive medications.

“We had to sell our house. We ate up our savings. I had to cash out my 401K and we had to sell a bunch of stuff just to get by so we were able to feed our kids. We have three children,” said 45-year-old Dave Aardal, who has chronic beryllium disease, an incurable lung condition.

“We have had to file bankruptcy because we only get social security. And we will probably have to sell the house or lose it,” said Melinda Rouse. “(My husband’s) got a death sentence and we have to fight this company instead of being able to just enjoy the time that we have left. We fight every single day.”

Hanford workers do have a designated advocate from the Dept. of Energy tasked with assisting them through the often daunting process. According to the DOE website, Juli Yamauchi is the point person whose job it is to “manage a proactive program and work with claimants and DOE’s third party administrator, Penser, to ensure a smooth process.” But a frequent complaint from workers is that this advocate is actually an adversary.

“(Yamauchi) is not an advocate. She says the workers are whiners and babies. She thinks people are trying to scam the system and she is telling Penser what to do- to deny claims,” said one current worker who did not want to be identified.

“Juli Yamauchi ruined my case, my life,” said Aardal. Aardal sued the DOE after his claims were rejected. During the hearing, the top Hanford medical director testified Yamauchi had attempted to meddle in the case in a manner detrimental to Aardal and his claim.

The Dept. of Energy denied our requests to interview Yamauchi. Her boss, Doug Shoop, said no DOE employee is allowed to interfere or give direction to a contractor. He said if he found evidence of wrongdoing, proper disciplinary action would take place.

“If an employee is found to not be following protocols, they will be counseled, and necessary disciplinary actions would be taken,” said Shoop, the DOE’s Richland Operations Office Manager. He oversees multiple contractors, including Penser.

Shoop told us he’s met with labor leaders to discuss ways to improve the system, including considering giving claim management duties back to the state.

“I am open to change,” said Shoop.

When asked if he thought Penser was doing a good job for the DOE, Shoop declined to weigh in. “I’d prefer not to make a statement on that,” said Shoop.

Next week lawmakers in Olympia will hold a hearing to consider legislation that would make it easier for Hanford workers to get their medical claims accepted. HB 1723, sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland), would give workers diagnosed with specific conditions a presumption of occupational illness.

“If we don’t take care of (these sick workers) then we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our own country, our own nation, our own fellow citizens. It’s important to do things right by other people if you expect them to do right by you,” said Carpenter of Hanford Challenge.

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