Labor Department official calls for more Pa. judges to handle miners' appeals

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WASHINGTON – Pittsburgh needs three more administrative law judges to reduce a backlog and to handle appeals being re-filed by miners and their widows, Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu testified this morning.

The appeals are being pursued because evidence has surfaced that doctors hired by coal companies were systematically misdiagnosing black lung disease to help employers avoid paying claims.

Nationally, his department is seeking a $2.72 million increase in funding for the Office of Administrative Law Judges, an 11.5 percent hike – the largest increase sought in 10 years.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told Mr. Lu he is concerned that may not be enough.

“I believe you’re going to need substantially new resources based on the work that you’re doing,” he said during a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, which he chairs.

Claimants wait an average of 429 days for a case to be assigned and another three or four months for court hearings. That’s far too long, Mr. Casey said.

“Our nation’s hardworking miners and their families deserve much better than that,” he said.

The number of claims filed is expected to increase from 6,400 last year to 7,400 by the end of this year. That’s partly because the department invited 1,100 people to resubmit claims after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found evidence that company-hired doctors were ignoring medical evidence of black lung in order to help employers avoid paying claims.

Since that report, the Department of Labor has made changes requiring more training for doctors who investigate, requiring government lawyers to intervene in certain cases, promising increased access to medical reports by company doctors, and providing federally funded medical exams to help miners bolster their cases.

Miners have complained that their employers are not required to disclose medical reports used to fight compensation claims.

Typically, benefit awards range from $625 to $1,251 per month.

There is no known cure for black lung, also known as pneumoconiosis. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath and airway obstruction that can lead to fibrosis and emphysema.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:; 703-996-9292. First Published July 22, 2014 12:00 AM

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