Gila County Cancer Victims May Be Eligible For Payments

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Gila County Recorder Linda Haught Ortega's father died of lung cancer in 1979.

Today, she stands to collect $50,000 for his death.

And Ortega is doing everything she can to tell other relatives of Gila County cancer victims and area cancer survivors themselves that they may be eligible for compensation, too.

Although the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program was created by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1990, Ortega learned of its existence only two months ago.

According to the provisions of the act, anyone who lived in Gila County during the 1950s and '60s and has since been diagnosed with cancer is eligible to receive $50,000. Surviving children and grandchildren may file on behalf of deceased parents, as Ortega has done.

Since Ortega rediscovered and began publicizing the RECA program, calls and visits to her office from cancer victims and their families in search of application forms have skyrocketed, she said.

"We had about 11 people in the office yesterday," she said. "We've been averaging 25 applications a week for the past six weeks. That's pretty phenomenal."

The RECA program was created to provide "compassionate payments" to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation released during above-ground nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s and early 1960s, or as a result of their exposure to radiation during employment in underground uranium mines.

Among those made eligible for payment by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act are "downwinders" people who lived in areas of Arizona, Nevada and Utah most affected by nuclear fallout from above-ground nuclear testing. In Arizona, the areas identified as "most affected" are Gila, Coconino, Yavapai, Navajo and Apache counties.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Arizonans were exposed to radiation from atomic bomb tests conducted in southern Nevada and western New Mexico. The most recent above-ground nuclear test was detonated 37 years ago at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Claims can be filed directly to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., or by way of an electronic form available at RECA's Internet Web site.

To qualify, cancer victims must have lived in Coconino, Yavapai, Navajo, Apache or Gila counties during the 1950s and '60s and have been diagnosed with leukemia (other than chronic lymphocytic leukemia), lung cancer, multiple myeloma, lymphomas (other than Hodgkin's disease), and primary cancer of the thyroid, male or female breast, esophagus, stomach, pharynx, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gall bladder, salivary gland, urinary bladder, brain, colon, ovary, or liver (except if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated).

Over the years, a number of amendments have been added to the act to expand the list of cancers eligible for compensation, provide coverage to people in more geographic areas, and to streamline the application process.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act says downwinders must have lived in the covered areas for one year between Jan. 15, 1951, and Oct. 31, 1958, or during the month of July 1962, when nuclear testing in Nevada and New Mexico reached its apex.

Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah were made eligible in the original RECA program; counties in Idaho, Oregon, Texas, Washington, South Dakota and North Dakota were added in a 1999 amendment.

That alteration also expanded eligibility to include uranium mine workers, uranium mill workers and those who transported uranium ore between June 1, 1942 and Dec. 31, 1971.

According to the RECA Web site, the U.S. government expects to spend nearly $900 million through the act during the next five years. As of March 1 of last year, the Justice Department had paid 3,302 claims worth $244 million and denied another 3,500 claims.

For more information, contact the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., at (800) 729-7327 or visit RECA's Internet Web site at www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/RECA/contact.htm.

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