Printed on: October 31, 2013

Breathing Easier

Program helps site workers get health benefits

By ALEX STUCKEY
astuckey@postregister.com

FORT HALL -- Fred Dopp came home from his job at the Department of Energy's desert site in 2002 coughing up blood.

Dopp, now 59, rushed to the doctor. He was diagnosed with colon cancer 48 hours later.

Doctors found something else, too: Dopp had scarring and tumors in his lungs. Luckily, the tumors were benign.

The colon cancer was taken care of, but Dopp's lungs will never be the same.

From 1994 to 2008, Dopp worked on and off as a painter and sandblaster for the cleanup contractors. One of his main jobs was to paint the inside of the structure built over Pit 9, a former nuclear waste disposal cell.

Doctors labeled his lung condition "severe asthma," he said.

"I don't worry so much about the past as I do the future," Dopp said. "The past is behind you ... what happens in the future when you get worse, that's the important part."

Because of his condition, he receives compensation through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. The U.S. Department of Labor program began in 2001. It provides compensation and health benefits to eligible former and current DOE nuclear weapons workers and certain survivors of a deceased worker, according to the website.

If the Labor Department approves a worker for the program, he or she receives a medical card. All medical expenses associated with a worker's health problem -- labeled on the card -- are paid by the department.

Some workers, such as Dopp, receive compensation for both their illness and their inability to work.

"I did not have any choice in the matter (to stop working)," Dopp said. "Last year, I tried to go and pick potatoes -- I fell so many times face first in the dirt because I passed out (from) all the dust in the air. You just don't do anything."

Dopp applied for the program in 2002. He received his medical card in 2007.

Filing the necessary paperwork was difficult and contributed to the delay, Dopp said.

A Nuclear Care Partners advocate could have shortened the wait time, but Dopp did not start working with the home care provider until October 2012.

"Before companies like ours were around, (employees) had to do (the application process) on their own," said Jan Williams, director and administrator of the Nuclear Care Partners Idaho Falls branch of home health. "Instead of taking five, seven, nine years to get compensation, we can get them approved in a year or two."

The nationwide provider created an office in Idaho Falls in January, but had already been working with patients in Idaho.

Nevada-based Nuclear Care Partners is one of two agencies with offices in Idaho Falls that caters to DOE workers. The other is Colorado-based Critical Nurse Staffing, which came to Idaho Falls in December 2012 but already had been working with patients before. Professional Case Management, also Colorado-based, provides care to patients in Idaho but does not have an office here, according to its website.

Nuclear Care Partners has about 42 patients in Idaho, ranging in age from 42 to 99.

Most of Critical Nurse Staffing's patients are in their 70s, but the provider would not disclose the number of patients in Idaho.

Both providers offer medical help, such as in-home visits several times a week, and act as advocates for those trying to get a medical card.

They also complete simple tasks, such as making sure a patient has enough food, in addition to running errands and socializing with them.

"We provide holistic care for the patient and family, looking at everything in their life," said Karen Blackham, Critical Nurse Staffing's Idaho administrator.

Nuclear Care Partners nurses visit Dopp's home in Fort Hall two to three times a week for about two to four hours each visit. When Dopp was participating in Pulmonary Rehab at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, the nurses met him there, Williams said.

Some patients are visited more often. The number of visits depends on the patient. Williams said Dopp is a star patient.

"If everyone was as healthy and able to do what he does, we would have much healthier people," Williams said

Although Dopp does everything he can to keep his lung capacity high -- such as continuing pulmonary rehab on his own -- he still struggles with breathing.

Sometimes, he'll simply collapse while working in the yard. Depending on the weather, he must be on oxygen anywhere from 12 to 24 hours a day.

That's why Nuclear Care Partners trained his wife, Sara Jo, as a family caregiver. She can be there to monitor her husband's breathing when the nurses can't. She's learned to sleep lightly at night in case his oxygen mask comes off.

With the help of Nuclear Care Partners nurses and his wife, Fred is able to joke about his illness.

"We may have Fred (as a patient) for 20, 30 plus years," Williams said.

"Or 50," Fred said with a laugh.

Idaho National Laboratory reporter Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755.

For more information

Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program: tinyurl.com/EEOICP

Nuclear Care Partners: nuclearcarepartners.com; 881-9022; 354 Sunnyside Road, Suite C.

Critical Nurse Staffing: criticalnursestaffing.com; 523-2311; 1552 S. Midway Ave.