Reading Room

Former Government Doctor Exposes Flaws in Compensation Program

Dr. Eugene Schwartz, the former medical director of the government's compensation program for nuclear weapons workers, resigned his position in May, claiming he was forced out for revealing flaws in the program.

In April, Dr. Schwartz provided information to the Department of Labor and the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog, exposing major flaws in the government's Site Exposure Matrix (SEM), a repository on toxic substances present at sites in the nuclear weapons complex. The SEM is used to determine a claimant's eligibility for compensation.

Dr. Schwartz confirmed what many claimants already suspected: the SEM includes an incomplete list of diseases and inconsistent, incomplete, or missing linkages between exposure to toxic substances and disease. As a result, many individuals are having their claims improperly denied.

The problems that Dr. Schwartz identified have impacted claimants from Livermore and Sandia labs. In several cases, claimants have been denied compensation because the government claims there is no evidence linking their exposure at the labs to their conditions. However, many of these claimants have found peer-reviewed studies to support their claims. These are exactly the same studies that should already be included in the SEM, but unfortunately many are not.

This unfair system forces claimants to become medical researchers, conducting time-consuming and expensive research to prove their claims. The SEM is supposed to fill this role, but its numerous deficiencies mean that claimants are faced with the choice of giving up on their claims or taking this work on themselves.

Another major issue that Dr. Schwartz found with the SEM is that is does not consider combinations of exposure. As a result, many claimants who were exposed to various combinations of toxic and radioactive substances are having their claims denied. Again, there are multiple studies showing links between disease and combinations of exposure, but these are not included in the SEM either.

In a sign that little has changed at the Department of Labor under the Obama administration, Dr. Schwartz, a Harvard-trained doctor with a master's degree in nuclear engineering, claims that he was forced to resign for revealing these flaws. It is especially troubling that the department may have chosen to force out its own top doctor, instead of dealing with the issues that he raised.

Until these and other problems with the compensation program are fixed, many sick workers will continue to have their claims improperly denied. Working together with our elected officials, we will have the opportunity to reform the program in the coming year, so that it is truly the "claimant friendly" program that Congress intended.

NOTE: We are committed to advocating with and for workers who have been made ill by on-the-job exposures at Livermore Lab, Sandia Lab/CA and other nuclear weapons facilities. Further, we are dedicated to creating positive change in order to prevent future exposure of workers and the surrounding community.

Each worker and community voice is needed if we are to succeed. There will be a Sick Worker Support Group meeting October 7, 2009, 10 AM - NOON, Livermore main library, 1188 South Livermore Avenue. Call Rob or Scott at the Tri-Valley CAREs office for details, 925/443-7148.

By Robert Schwartz, attorney, Tri-Valley CAREs