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Draft order would shift sick-worker plan

WASHINGTON - Labor Secretary Elaine Chao yesterday appeared to be winning a battle over custody of an entitlement program for job-contaminated nuclear workers.

The Office of Management and Budget circulated a draft executive order handing the program over to the Justice Department. Ms. Chao concluded her department did not have the right kind of expertise and asked that the Justice Department be put in charge.

The proposed order - which is not the administration position unless President Bush signs it - would amend an order by President Clinton, who put the Labor Department in charge, and defy Congress, which appropriated money to the Labor Department to set up the program. It is supposed to give $150,000, plus medical care to workers with cancer or incurable lung disease because of their Cold War-era exposure to radiation, beryllium or silica.

Despite assuring senators in February that the Labor Department was up to the task, Secretary Chao said she “soon found that the Department does not have the experience or expertise in radiation cases to adequately serve these workers.”

Secretary Chao's stand was vehemently opposed by the lawmakers who established the program, the unions that asked for the it, and some dissatisfied beneficiaries of the decade-old Justice Department program.

The Blade published a series of articles last year that detailed the misconduct of the U.S. government and the beryllium industry when it came to protecting workers from contracting an incurable lung disease when working with the metal.

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