Regulations, bill make it harder to deny coal miners medical aid

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WASHINGTON -- Help is arriving for longtime coal miners denied compensation benefits.

New Department of Labor regulations are making it harder for mine operators to deny benefits to miners based on the opinions of employer-paid doctors, who sometimes report finding no evidence that the workers' lung diseases were caused by coal dust.

And a pair of lawmakers from the coal region are trying to do even more to help.

This fall, the Department of Labor began requiring adjudicators to presume working conditions to be the cause of certain serious lung diseases diagnosed in people who worked in coal mines for more than 15 years.

The coal industry fought those changes, saying they would force companies to spend resources on claims instead of creating jobs to grow the economy.

But labor union leaders say miners -- and too often, their widows -- are starting to benefit from the changes.

"A lot of people who hadn't been getting benefits and should have are now getting them," said Phil Smith, spokesman for United Mine Workers of America.

Now Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wants to do even more to help coal miners suffering from black lung disease, but prospects for passage of his proposed law are uncertain. Currently its only co-sponsor is Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, who has been stumping for it on national television.

"Whenever you're dealing with labor-management type issue, you have very powerful forces lined up against you. Washington is full of politicians and interest groups that seem to believe that when worker protections are strengthened, companies lose out," Mr. Casey said.

The legislation would require coal operators to share complete medical reports with miners when requiring medical evaluations by company-chosen doctors. Currently, such reports are not required to be disclosed, even during administrative hearings to determine workers' compensation.

Changing that would improve fairness, Mr. Smith said.

"Miners don't have access to the same medical records about themselves that the [companies'] lawyers do," he said. "These are retired coal miners who don't have a whole lot of money in their pockets to get all these expert opinions, and the system denies them access to evidence that they do, in fact, have this disease."

Mr. Rockefeller's proposed legislation also would streamline the benefits application process, provide grants to study prevention and treatment of black lung disease, and would require the General Accounting Office to identify barriers to health care for miners.

John Pippy, a former state senator from Moon who now works in Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said his group believes Congress should focus on prevention rather than compensation.

Mr. Casey, grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner, said it's important to address both.

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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