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.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
21 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
22 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
23 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×