U.S. Labor Dept. program aids miners' black lung claims

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WASHINGTON -- The Labor Department has announced a pilot initiative aimed at giving miners a better chance of winning compensation for black lung disease, but the changes apply only to certain miners who filed claims between January 2005 and March 2010.

The changes provide more training for doctors who investigate claims, require government lawyers to intervene in certain cases and entitle miners to medical exams paid for by a government trust fund if they also submit to exams by a company-provided physician. Medical reports by the government-paid doctors can then be used to bolster miners' workers' compensation cases.

The government-paid doctor would have an opportunity to review and rebut the company physician's medical report. However, that provision only applies in cases where a miner worked underground for at least 15 years and is presumed totally disabled due to black lung.

Miners have complained that their employers aren't required to show them medical reports used to fight compensation claims.

A 2009 study by the General Accounting Office found that miners frequently don't have the resources to develop medical evidence supporting their claims, and that results in a low probability of successful claims.

That concerns regulators.

"We owe these workers a fair shot, and we are doing what we can do to make sure they get it," wrote Gary Steinberg, acting director of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, and Michael Chance, acting director of the office's Division of Coal Mine Workers' Compensation.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., have been working to do even more to help miners suffering from black lung. They are pushing a bill that would require mining companies to share complete medical reports with all miners involved in compensation cases.

"A pilot initiative, you'd think, would be more typical when there's a brand new process or problem," Mr. Casey said. "This is not unfamiliar territory, therefore we shouldn't settle for a pilot program. Why not have more substantial change?"

He's also looking for broader reaching change that would reduce the backlog of compensation cases that keeps claimants waiting an average of 429 days to have black lung cases adjudicated by administrative law judges.

The changes, which are effective immediately, provide miners the opportunity to substantiate their claims with a complete pulmonary evaluation, solicitor of labor Patricia Smith explained Monday in a memo to government attorneys.

The changes please United Mine Workers of America.

"This will help level the playing field, and anything that does that is a good step in the right direction, but there is more to do," said union spokesman Phil Smith.

In her memo, Ms. Smith, the solicitor, said the initiative was spurred by a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News. Their report showed that administrative judges relied on medical reports from company-hired doctors whose evaluations blocked miners from receiving benefits even when test results showed evidence of black lung disease.

The pilot program could be made permanent and could expand to cover more miners pending an evaluation by the Department of Labor's Division of Coal Mine Workers' Compensation.

In a blog post Tuesday, Labor Department officials said black lung disease has contributed to the deaths of more than 75,000 miners since 1968.

In most cases, successful black lung claims are paid by coal companies or their insurers. Benefits range from $625 to $1,251 per month, according to the Department of Labor.

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

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com , 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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