WASHINGTON, D.C. – Despite the incidence of Black Lung Disease occurring at record-high levels, many miners are unable to claim the benefits they deserve. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today announced new legislation he has cosponsored that would cut this claims backlog and prevent the denial of miners’ black lung benefits. Brown was joined by Babe Erdos, a retired miner from Belmont County who discussed how Brown’s bill will make it easier for mine workers to secure the benefits they need.
“Ohio coalminers have already risked their health far too often to put food on their families’ tables,” Brown 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. While Federal law requires that coal companies compensate disabled miners who contract Black Lung, coal companies routinely deploy an array of unfair tactics to avoid paying miners their benefits.
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.
This week, Brown joined U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-PA) to introduce 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. Specifically, 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 (DOL) 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.
Brown continues to fight for the wellbeing of Ohio’s coalminers. In July 2015, he introduced the Miners Protection Act to protect the promised pensions and health care benefits of hundreds of retired Ohio coal miners. In July 2014, Brown applauded DOL’s respirable dust rule and urged them to defend it in the face of court challenges to ensure workers are exposed to safer levels of coal dust to reduce future incidences of black lung.