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Help for test site workers hits snag

WASHINGTON — Workers who got sick from the jobs they held decades ago at the Nevada Test Site will have to continue waiting for help with medical benefits.

The Senate passed a 2008 defense bill on Monday but did not take up an amendment that would have streamlined compensation for former workers at the weapons site who contracted cancer and other debilitating diseases, or their survivors.

The amendment by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have offered special status to most people who worked at the site between 1951 and 1993, and who believe their illnesses were tied to exposures to toxic or radioactive materials.

“We didn’t get it on,” Reid confirmed Thursday. “We’ll keep working on it. There are other vehicles, and we will keep pushing.”

The government currently grants “special exposure cohort” status to former workers who spent more than 250 eight-hour working days at the test site between 1951 and 1962, the period when atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted there.

Those workers qualify for $150,000 payments and medical costs. Other workers carry the burden of proof to document their sicknesses were tied to their former jobs. That threshold is difficult to meet, because many radiation exposure records were not preserved and need to be reconstructed.

John Funk, a former test site carpenter who has several cancers and myeloproliferative, a chronic bone marrow disorder, expressed disappointment. Funk complained Congress’s response to the plight of the test site workers has been uneven.

The issue “is going nowhere,” said Funk, whose compensation claims were denied after dose reconstructions indicated his cancers more than likely were not caused by exposure to radiation at his job.

It was unclear what happened to Reid’s amendment. Reid said Thursday it ran into resistance but did not elaborate.

One Senate official who monitored the defense bill said it appeared the amendment fell victim to a technical challenge of some kind.

Reid’s next move will be to work with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is planning a hearing later this month on the health concerns of former energy workers, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.

“Senator Reid is hopeful that after Sen. Kennedy holds his hearing that his staff will begin the process of reviewing the legislation and make changes to the program,” Summers said.

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