WA State: An Audit Finds Issue with Hanford's Work Comp Program


Richland, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) - In March 2017, both of Washington state’s Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray requested that the Department of Energy, Office of Inspector General examine how workers’ compensation claims were being handed at Hanford.

According to Hanford’s informational website, “The Hanford Site sits on 586-square-miles of shrub-steppe desert in southeastern Washington State. Beginning in 1943, the site was used to produce plutonium for the bomb that brought an end to World War II. After a short lull, production was ramped up in 1947 to meet the challenges of the ‘Cold War’ and continued until 1987 when the last reactor ceased operation.” 

“Weapons production processes left solid and liquid wastes that posed a risk to the local environment including the Columbia River. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Washington State Department of Ecology entered into a legally binding accord, the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), to clean up the Hanford Site.”

For more WorkersCompensation.com coverage of Hanford, click here

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) workers’ compensation program at Hanford is governed under RCW Title 51, and the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) oversees compliance regulations for the site.

Last year, a letter was sent to then acting Inspector General April Stephenson by Sen. Cantwell and Murray. It read, “Multiple accounts of workers’ compensation claims (are) being dismissed on arbitrary grounds… tactics bordering on intimidation and actions taken to discredit claims have been shared with us.”

The political pair expressed concern at the troubling allegations, and called for the investigation. They also wanted to look into the treatment of workers when Penser North America served as Hanford’s workers’ compensation claims administrator. 

The Inspector General audit report was recently released, and an array of problems have been discovered. One issue alleged a lack of suitable communication with injured or ill workers that filed workers’ compensation claims.

In a news release, Sen. Cantwell said, “This report should act as a wake-up call for the Department of Energy that improving safety and support (of) workers at Hanford is a never-ending job. Over and over these investigations show that lack of communication and transparency lead to mistrust between workers and the Department of Energy (DOE).” 

Investigators looked for any evidence of probable intimidation or harassment toward workers that filed workers’ compensation claims. But no evidence was found that directly supported those accusations.

Large billing and payment discrepancies were also allegedly discovered when it came to pension benefits costs. The report found Penser had allegedly used a letter of credit from the Department of Energy to cover medical bills, workers’ lost time checks, and other compensation claim costs. The audit reported that the DOE did not reconcile its letter of credit payments to Penser’s records, payment, and invoices.

The audit found that the workers’ compensation program at Hanford works when it comes to clear-cut claims, like ones for scrapes and cuts. But after investigators took a look at specific claims with extensive paperwork, it was found that Penser was allegedly not submitting all claims information to L&I. 

Phil Valdens, a spokesperson for Penser, told WorkersCompensation.com, “The DOE Office of Inspector General (OIG) did their best to conduct a thorough review and to understand the applicable laws and policies by which these programs are administered. However, we do not agree with the context and specific findings when it comes to the paperwork and not informing employees about their denied claims.”

“The Department of Labor & Industries, through their ongoing oversight and audit function, has not communicated findings or the existence of an issue in this area of administration. During Penser’s tenure as the third-party administrator for DOE’s self-insurance program, we have never received a penalty from Labor & Industries regarding these issues on any DOE claims,” he said. 

The audit recommends that the DOE increase its involvement in every aspect of the Hanford workers’ compensation program. In April, to aid in that process, the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center was opened. Workers can visit the center and get help to better understand what workers’ compensation benefits are available to them.

Rae Moss, the Director of Communications and External Affairs for Mission Support Alliance, told WorkersCompensation.com, “The center’s representatives are equipped to help current and former Hanford employees (and their families) with questions or concerns about occupational health issues. The staff have extensive backgrounds working at the Hanford Site in both union and non-union positions, so they know the environment and can help workers connect with the right organizations and identify where to obtain the information they need. They’re also there to help educate and get people on the right track if they encounter an issue with a claim or process.” 

Sen. Murray has said Hanford employees working in extremely hazardous conditions “deserve all the protections and care available without hassle or delay.” 

The Senators and DOE hadn’t responded to requests for comment by press time.  

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