Judges needed: Black lung cases are overwhelming the system

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There are few jobs in America that are as hazardous to one’s health as working in the coal mines. Toiling in dirty, confined conditions underground for decades will expose even the most conscientious worker to dangerous levels of coal dust.

The biggest hazard facing miners is black lung disease, a debilitating respiratory ailment that afflicts a large percentage of workers in that industry. What begins as a nagging cough can eventually develop into something fatal if it isn’t treated.

Meanwhile, the number of black lung claims filed by coal miners has gotten so unwieldy in recent years that Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu is seeking the largest funding increase in a decade — 11.5 percent or $2.72 million — for the Office of Administrative Law Judges so that it can more efficiently process the expected mountain of claims.

Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., hear the majority of black lung claims, so those offices would receive the bulk of funding intended for staff increases and other needed resources.

In a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, Mr. Lu said Pittsburgh needs at least three new administrative law judges to review cases and handle appeals.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., agreed that the Pittsburgh office needed beefing up, but questioned whether the increase the secretary requested will be enough. The national backlog currently stands at 2,866. Another 7,400 cases are expected to be filed by the end of the year, with many of those in Pittsburgh.

The scandal of miners waiting an average of 429 days for a case to be assigned and four months beyond that for a hearing is outrageous. Sen. Casey makes an excellent point that even more funding should be requested given the additional black lung cases expected to be filed here and across the country.


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