GALLIPOLIS — In a quest to get benefits for coal miners who suffer from Black Lung Disease, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said he has helped introduced legislation that would cut what he calls a claims backlog and prevent the denial of miners’ black lung benefits.
In a conference call Wednesday with Ohio and West Virginia news organizations, Brown (D-Ohio) says Black Lung Disease is occurring at “record high levels.” As a result, he said coal companies have been making it increasingly difficult for many coal miners in Ohio and West Virginia to obtain the proper benefits.
“We need to do all we can to ensure that our miners receive the benefits they deserve,” he said.
Brown was joined on the conference call by Babe Erdos, a retired third-generation miner from Belmont County in eastern Ohio who discussed how Brown’s bill will make it easier for mine workers to secure the benefits.
“Ohio coal miners have already risked their health far too often to put food on their families’ tables,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to navigate a system dominated by red tape and corporate lawyers to get the benefits they’ve earned. That’s why I’m fighting to pass the Black Lung Benefits Improvements Act — to ensure our miners receive the benefits they deserve.”
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 76,000 miners have died as a result of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, emphysema, and progressive massive fibrosis — collectively known as Black Lung Disease — since 1968.
“(Miners) do important and dangerous work. They provide energy independence for our nation and they provide for their families,” Brown said.
While federal law requires that coal companies compensate disabled miners who contract Black Lung Disease, Brown said coal companies, and the physicians and lawyers they employ, routinely deploy tactics to avoid paying miners benefits.
“Independent studies found that doctors paid by the coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with Black Lung Disease as having other diseases, therefore they don’t get these benefits,” Brown said. “In some case, we found that lawyers working for coal companies withheld medical evidence proving that miners had black lung, causing the miners’ claims to be denied.”
While the U.S. Department of Labor has taken several steps to address the issues identified in these reports, without congressional action, “disabled coal miners who deserve black lung benefits will continue to be unfairly denied,” he said.
Brown said he and U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) worked together to co-sponsor the Black Lung Benefits Act, which would enact sweeping reforms to existing law. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.-17) introduced companion legislation in the House.
“It would improve the claims process by preventing coal companies from denying workers and their families the benefits they’ve earned,” he said.
Specifically, Brown said the legislation would:
• Require disclosure of all miners’ medical evidence in black lung cases. This provision would promote transparency and the fair adjudication of claims by making copies of doctors’ diagnoses of a miner’s medical condition readily available.
• Increase access to legal representation for miners. Currently, attorneys representing claimants do not receive payment until a determination has been made that coal operators are liable for the miners’ black lung benefits — which can take years or even longer — discouraging attorneys from taking on these cases. This provision would create a system to pay a portion of attorney’s fees earlier in the litigation process.
• Provide automatic cost-of-living increases for black lung beneficiaries. Black lung benefits are currently tied to the rate of pay for federal employees, preventing or reducing any rate increases for miners and surviving family members due to federal employee pay freezes in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
• Crack down on unethical conduct by strengthening criminal penalties. This provision would give the claims adjutant power to issue sanctions when medical evidence is withheld from a claimant.
• Direct resources to help miners gather medical evidence in their black lung claims. By expanding an existing Department of Labor pilot program, DOL would be required to provide miners with expanded assessments of their pulmonary condition when it has been challenged by a coal operator.
• Ensure all doctors who provide evaluations of miners’ pulmonary conditions are qualified and without conflicts of interest. This provision would improve quality of medical evidence by requiring DOL to update its certification list of doctors who can provide testimony in these cases and ensure that all pre-cleared doctors are free from conflicts of interest.
• Provide an appeals process for claimants to request a re-adjudication of their claim if it was denied because of the testimony of a medical expert who has been discredited by DOL. It is estimated that as many as 1,500 claims since the year 2000 could be eligible under this provision.
“Coal miners risk their health far too often to feed their families and contribute to their communities. They shouldn’t have to navigate a system dominated by red tape and, frankly, dominated by corporate lawyers to get the benefits,” Brown said.
Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike
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