WASHINGTON – The Bush administration wants to expand a medical screening program to former nuclear weapons workers at 12 additional sites nationwide, nearly doubling the number of workers who would be screened.
The plan, unveiled this week as part of President Bush's proposed budget, would allow an estimated 25,000 more workers to get the free, one-time tests that could help them seek early treatment for work-related illnesses such as respiratory diseases, hearing loss, bladder cancer and damage to the liver and kidneys.
"We're losing people daily and we need to get these tests going," said Eric Parker, president of the union that represents workers at the former Mound weapons plant (search) in Miamisburg, Ohio.
The Energy Department launched the program in 1999 for current and former workers at 13 of the nation's most contaminated sites, including the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (search) in southern Ohio, Los Alamos (search) weapons lab in New Mexico, Hanford plant (search) in Washington state and Rocky Flats (search) in Colorado.
So far, tests have been done on about 28,000 workers who may have been exposed to asbestos, beryllium, plutonium, nickel, solvents, acids and high levels of noise through their work at the plants or laboratories.
The proposed expansion comes as testing for workers at those sites is nearing completion.
It's an about-face for the Energy Department, which said last year that it would close regional testing clinics and replace them with a national screening program available to workers through a toll-free number.
"We thought it was more important for people to have the opportunity to walk into an actual clinic and have one-on-one face time with a doctor," said John Shaw, director of the department's Office of Environment, Safety and Health.
Under the Bush plan, funding would remain at $12.5 million next year but would be reallocated to open eight new testing centers and create four supplemental care programs. The plan also would allow former department workers from any site to see their own doctor.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, applauded the plan, saying it will help detect cancer and other diseases that otherwise could have gone untreated.
"The Cold War was won by the men and women who made the weapons that enforced the peace," he said.