Insult upon injury: Too many black-lung claims are caught in a backlog

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Since 1973, coal miners who contract pneumoconiosis — black lung disease — have been eligible for monthly payments and medical benefits through the Federal Black Lung Benefits Program. Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the program recognizes the incurable affliction as an occupational hazard brought on by the inhalation of air thick with coal dust.

But miners seeking their due compensation are being hurt by an administrative backlog. Due to a shortage of judges, the black lung program has seen an 18 percent jump over nine years in the number of pending cases, which totaled 2,995 by the end of 2013.

The result is as foul as the grime scarring the miners’ lungs. Driven into unemployment by their debilitating disease, they are forced to pay their medical bills out-of-pocket for up to two years, adding financial stress to chronic coughing, shortness of breath and a diminished quality of life.

By the time some cases are reviewed and approved, the disease has claimed the lives of the miners, according to the head of a black lung clinic in Peters, Washington County. Widowed spouses and other dependents are then awarded monthly payments.

Sen. Bob Casey, with seven other lawmakers, wrote a letter to the Office of Management and Budget for help in addressing the backlog. They requested that an additional $10 million be given to the Labor Department so that 20 more judges can be hired to review cases.

Whether through more funds or better delegation of staff, the government must restore the Federal Black Lung Program to its full effectiveness. Ailing former workers are entitled to speedy assistance, not harmful delay.

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