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Senior Lawmakers Introduce Sweeping Reforms to Black Lung Benefits Program

Legislation aims to prevent coal companies from unfairly denying benefits to deserving miners and families

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senior Democrats from the House and Senate today proposed sweeping reforms to the federal program that provides benefits to coal miners suffering from black lung disease.Federal law requires that coal companies compensate disabled miners who contract black lung, which is caused by inhaling coal dust over an extended period of time, but coal companies routinely deploy an array of unfair tactics to avoid paying miners the benefits they deserve.                      

To help level the playing field for miners battling this debilitating, potentially fatal disease, the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2014 (H.R. 5751)was introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA), along with Senators John Rockefeller (D-WV), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Tim Kaine (D-VA), as well as Representatives Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), Joe Courtney (D-CT), George Miller (D-CA), and Nick Rahall (D-WV).

“Thousands of miners are sick and dying from black lung, yet coal companies are still doing everything in their power to exploit legal loopholes that can prevent miners and their families from getting the benefits they deserve,” the legislators said. “Investigative reports and congressional hearings have documented a litany of deplorable tactics used by coal companies that leave miners out-gunned in litigation over their eligibility for modest black lung benefits. Our legislation aims to right that wrong by helping miners obtain unbiased medical evidence, adequate representation, and up-to-date benefit payments.”

Recent analyses by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News found that doctors who are paid by coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with black lung as having other diseases, thus preventing the miners from accessing benefits. Furthermore, hearings in the U.S. Senate showed that coal company lawyers have caused some miners’ claims to be denied by withholding medical evidence that proves that the miner has black lung.

In the past year, the U.S. Department of Labor has taken several steps to address the issues identified in these reports, but without congressional action, disabled coal miners who deserve black lung benefits will continue to be unfairly denied.

The Black Lung Benefits Act of 2014 will strengthen the black lung benefits program by:

Improving miners’ access to medical evidence

  • Requiring full disclosure of medical information related to a claim, whether or not such information is entered as evidence
  • Helping miners review and rebut potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies
  • Allowing miners or their survivors to reopen their cases if they had been denied because of medical interpretations that have subsequently been discredited
  • Establishing a pilot program in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to provide unbiased evidence for the most severe black lung cases

Helping miners access better, more timely benefits

  • Adjusting black lung benefits to increases in the cost of living
  • Helping claimants secure legal representation by providing interim attorney fees if miners prevail at various stages of their claim
  • Developing a strategy to reduce the backlog of black lung benefits claims still awaiting consideration

Additional information on the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2014 (H.R. 5751) is available here.

Full text of the bill is available here.