Energy Department contracts hospital to save workers’ records

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By Roger Snodgrass

Former employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory with claims against the federal government for work-related illnesses won a longstanding grievance last week.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. reported that the Los Alamos Medical Center has been awarded a $999,999 contract by the Department of Energy to help salvage thousands of old medical and exposure records in the hospital basement and a nearby warehouse.                

“Cleanup and storage of these medical records is key to advancing the cases of former Los Alamos Lab employees who have filed compensation claims with the EEOICPA program,” Bingaman said in the announcement.

EEOICPA, the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, was passed in 2000 to compensate workers involved in the production and testing of nuclear weapons who developed diseases because of exposures on the job. Bingaman visited the hospital and spoke to hospital officials in August.

A spokesperson for the hospital said Monday they had not received notification of the contract and declined to comment until then.

The contract will assist with the cleanup and indexing of medical records of former laboratory employees and contractor employees according to the announcement.

Specialists will copy documents and prepare the records for long-term storage. The records were contaminated during the post-war years when the hospital was under the management of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Jonathan Epstein, a Bingaman staff member who followed the issue to the current resolution credited Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., with having started the ball rolling on finding a solution for the problem a couple of years ago.

“We’ve all been beating on DOE since then,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing.”

In a letter written in March 2006, seeking help from the responsible federal authorities, Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) described the situation he found at that time, with the medical records in “disarray, deteriorating and slated for destruction.”

He reported that hospital officials told him that, “even if they could find the resources to pay their file clerks to accomplish this daunting task, the current condition of the files may pose a health risk to their workers as the warehouse files are covered in dust, mold and potentially hantavirus-infected mouse droppings.”

While he described the staff of the medical center to be “extremely open and cooperative” about the problem of the records, he reported that the hospital found itself unable to maintain the records and unable to get DOE to take them back. They said they had inherited the archive from the previous owner but private hospitals were not required by state law to retain adult medical records beyond 10 years.

The records date back to the Atomic Energy Commission that took over the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos from the military in 1947 and was in charge of the laboratory until 1975.

The existence of inaccessible records that could not be used as evidence for employee claims has frustrated claimants.

After the laboratory was designated a “special exposure cohort,” for the people who worked there from its founding in March 1943 through 1975, workers only needed to prove that they had contracted specified cancers to qualify for a lump sum payment of $150,000.

But in order to qualify for medical expenses for other hazardous exposures, the claimants have continued to struggle to gather the required proof. The official records, when available, have proven unreliable at times and did not always accurately reflect the totality of workplace exposures, according to claimants and their advocates.