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The Department of Labor (DOL) announced last Tuesday that they would reopen the comment period for the rule changes to adjudication of EEOICPA claims that they proposed last November, after having originally extended the comment period for an additional month in January. The comment period is now open for another 33 days, lasting until May 9.

While we would hope that the comments we previously submitted on the matter helped in some small way to encourage the Department to rethink their position on some of their proposals, we must acknowledge that the March 31st letter from U.S. Senators Tom Udall, D-NM and Lamar Alexander, R-TN to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, in which they expressed “strong concerns” about the proposed changes to the program, likely held a bit more weight.

In the words of Udall, “EEOICPA has been plagued with bureaucratic hurdles and delays for years, and I’m concerned that the Department of Labor’s latest rule change will just add more steps to the process and make it harder for sick workers to prove a case. Extending the public comment period is a positive sign, and I encourage all New Mexicans to weigh in. But we also need to make sure the new Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health has a chance to review the program before any major changes occur.”

That statement followed up a letter Udall wrote to Perez on Dec. 22, 2015 in which he stated, “Firstly, DOL proposed over 100 changes in this notice of proposed rulemaking, some of which may have an adverse effect on the way claims are adjudicated.” In that letter he also brought the Secretary’s attention to the fact that Congress had created an Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health in 2014, but that it had still not been seated a year later.

The appointments to that board, composed of five members from the scientific community, five members from the medical community and five members from the claimant community, were announced on April 1. A full description of the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health for Part E of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) program and its membership can be found at http://www.dol.gov/owcp/energy/regs/compliance/AdvisoryBoard.htm

The Board’s first meeting will take place in Washington, D.C. on April, 26-28, 2016. The current extension of the comment period should allow for input from the Board on proposed changes that, it is hoped, will ensure that former Workers in the atomic weapons industry whose work there has sickened and killed them, or their surviving family members, continue to be justly compensated as originally intended by the Act.