A federal law that provides partial compensation for miners, millers and truck drivers who worked in the nation’s uranium mining industry during the Cold War is coming to an end in July 2022.
At first glance, that deadline seems rather far away – yet researchers and clinicians at The University of New Mexico say that the pandemic has made it difficult to reach out to people who may qualify.
Damage from uranium exposure can take decades to become visible.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was first enacted in 1990 and then expanded in 2000 to provide partial compensation to individuals who now suffer health conditions from having been employed in the uranium industry or having lived downwind from nuclear test sites through 1971.
The Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP) clinic at UNM – one of eight nationally authorized to screen people – temporarily closed due to COVID in March.
Even today, there is no centralized method for finding people who worked in the uranium industry. COVID is placing an additional level of urgency to the program, says Denece Kesler, MD, director of the UNM Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Promotion, and principal investigator for the RESEP program.
“We were hoping to reach as many former uranium industry workers as possible before RECA coverage ends, so we are somewhat discouraged at the impact of COVID in slowing our efforts," Kesler says.
The U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for enrolling qualifying patients into the program. While the department is allowed by law to take up to one year to process claims, it is currently taking about 90 days, says Gail Nowosadko, RESEP outreach clinic coordinator.
“We want people to know that if they feel safe in going to their local primary care physicians then they can obtain a chest X-ray and lab work elsewhere for review here,” she says. “Our program can’t pay for those procedures but they can be used in the application and screening process.”
If people are within a short drive of Albuquerque, RESEP orders the tests to be completed at UNM, although this may change depending on COVID numbers and health precautions related to the pandemic.
“We are also investigating the possibility of using telehealth appointments for the process,” she says.
Patients can qualify to be followed with annual screenings even when they don’t initially qualify for health care and treatment through the program.
“These are progressive diseases,” Nowosadko says. “We have seen patients who showed obvious signs of damage from uranium exposure, yet did not qualify for the program. By following them now, there is still time to get another exam in 2021.”
“If someone does get a screening and they don’t qualify now, then we still have time to do another screening next year and there would still be time if they did qualify then, it would be enough time to send their claim into the Department of Justice and allow plenty of time for the DOJ to process the claim before the program ends,” she adds.
“We don’t want to push people to get a screening if it increases their risks of getting COVID, yet we do want to make sure that it is safe to go and obtain their lab work,” Nowosadko says. “We want to keep people on track as much as possible.”
“We are committed to being innovative in coming up with possible ways to help patients get medical assessments so those who are eligible may receive the coverage that they deserve,” Kesler says. “New Mexicans who diligently worked to accomplish the goals of our nation and should be honored for that diligence.”
For more information about the program, contact Nowosadko at (505) 272-4672 or visit online at https://hsc.unm.edu/resep/