How Can the U.S. Fix The Case Backlog of Black-Lung-Stricken Miners?

Congressional leaders and labor officials convened this week to address a broken federal compensation program for miners with the disease.

Coal miners in Ohio.
National Journal
Marina Koren
July 24, 2014, 8:19 a.m.

For Robert Bailey Jr., breath­ing doesn’t come nat­ur­ally.

At least not any­more. After 36 years as a uni­on coal miner, Bailey suf­fers from pneumo­coni­os­is, com­monly known as black-lung dis­ease, a res­pir­at­ory ill­ness caused by pro­longed ex­pos­ure to coal dust.

“Liv­ing with black lung is think­ing about every breath you take,” Bailey, now re­tired, told Con­gress on Tues­day. “Breath­ing is something most people take for gran­ted, as it is a nor­mal in­vol­un­tary func­tion of our bod­ies. It comes nat­ur­al as we walk, do our daily jobs, come and go. But with this dis­ease, I am re­minded con­stantly as I struggle to breathe wheth­er I am simply walk­ing up my slight in­cline of a yard, or … at our church when we give out food.”

Bailey, now re­tired, was speak­ing at a hear­ing called by the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee to ad­dress ser­i­ous flaws, first ex­posed by a re­port last fall, in a fed­er­al com­pens­a­tion pro­gram for coal miners stricken with black-lung dis­ease. 

Miners who pur­sue black-lung be­ne­fits have to wait more than a year for their cases to be heard by an ad­min­is­trat­ive law judge, and a fi­nal de­cision can take an­oth­er few years. The Labor De­part­ment’s Of­fice of Work­ers’ Com­pens­a­tion Pro­grams pays for these miners’ pul­mon­ary eval­u­ations. Right now, the de­part­ment is fa­cing a 2,856-case back­log.

Sen. Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., said that coal miners pur­su­ing be­ne­fits wait an av­er­age of 429 days be­fore their cases reach a judge. “Our na­tion’s hard­work­ing miners and their fam­il­ies de­serve much, much bet­ter than that,” Ca­sey said.

The claims pro­gram, ad­min­istered by the Labor De­part­ment’s Di­vi­sion of Coal Mine Work­ers’ Com­pens­a­tion, provides mon­et­ary and med­ic­al be­ne­fits to thou­sands of dis­abled coal miners and to fam­il­ies of work­ers who died from the pro­gress­ive ill­ness. It was cre­ated by the Black Lung Be­ne­fits Act of 1969 be­cause state-level work­ers’ com­pens­a­tion pro­grams were fail­ing to meet coal miners’ health needs.

A year­long in­vest­ig­a­tion by ABC News and the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­teg­rity last Oc­to­ber sug­ges­ted that the fed­er­al pro­gram it­self wasn’t work­ing for some coal miners. Their re­port found that more than 1,000 coal miners who filed claims may have been wrongly denied be­ne­fits. Some work­ers who were not gran­ted be­ne­fits were later found to have the dis­ease — through autop­sies, after they had died. The in­vest­ig­a­tion also sug­ges­ted that coal com­pan­ies’ at­tor­neys hid from ad­min­is­trat­ive judges some med­ic­al evid­ence for em­ploy­ees pur­su­ing black-lung be­ne­fits.

“The de­part­ment took these re­ports ser­i­ously,” Labor Deputy Sec­ret­ary Chris­toph­er Lu told Con­gress, be­fore diving in­to a list of fixes that have been put in place since Oc­to­ber’s re­port.

The de­part­ment is now ask­ing all miners whose claims were denied to re­apply. It is es­pe­cially tar­get­ing miners who re­ceived care from Dr. Paul S. Wheel­er, the head of Johns Hop­kins’ black-lung pro­gram. Wheel­er, Oc­to­ber’s re­port found, had not re­por­ted a single in­stance of the dis­ease in more than 1,500 claims dat­ing back to 2000. Hop­kins is con­duct­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion, and doc­tors there are for­bid­den from per­form­ing black-lung X-ray read­ings, which help in dia­gnos­is, un­til the in­vest­ig­a­tion is over.

The Labor De­part­ment also plans to add two ad­min­is­trat­ive law judges to re­view cases, and to bring a judge out of re­tire­ment to handle claims in Pitt­s­burgh, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal coun­try. The de­part­ment will also help miners whose ap­plic­a­tions have been denied to ob­tain more med­ic­al evid­ence for a re­newed at­tempt.

Lu said the de­part­ment may need more re­sources than it has now to handle new claims, which he pro­jects will total 7,100 by the end of this fisc­al year, a 10.6 per­cent in­crease over fil­ings in fisc­al 2013.

The Sen­ate com­mit­tee wel­comed Lu’s fixes this week, but the prob­lems are far from over. More-ag­gress­ive meas­ures re­quire le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion, which is un­likely to come quickly. Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers have yet to push through any le­gis­la­tion to help the broken Vet­er­ans Af­fairs de­part­ment, which has also kept people wait­ing for months for med­ic­al care. The dis­abled coal miners wait­ing for res­ol­u­tion of their claims know not to hold their breath. 

The head­line and text of this story has been up­dated to cla­ri­fy the size of the back­long of black lung claims.

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