Hardworking Americans who have spent their working lives in coal mines should not have had to sacrifice their health to provide for their family, but since 1968, black lung disease has caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 75,000 miners. That’s why Congress passed the Black Lung Benefits Act in 1969, which provides compensation and medical benefits to coal miners disabled by black lung disease and compensation to certain family members after the miner’s death.
Since then, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs has worked hard to make sure that miners and survivors receive the benefits to which they’re entitled.
One of the biggest challenges is the adversarial nature of the system. Because mine operators are ultimately responsible for paying the vast majority of claims awarded, it is within their rights to appeal decisions. The initial decision and hearing process can be tough for miners and their families.
Part of our job is to ensure fairness in the system, and make sure that claimants who may not have the resources of a large company have the chance to prove their claims. In a certain number of cases, we have found miners are being drowned in the legal system even after their claims are accepted.
So over the past year, we have made great progress in expediting the claims process for those afflicted with black lung. OWCP sped the time to issue a proposed decision, decreasing it by 42 days. The agency has improved the timeliness of doctors’ reports, a key piece of the claims process. These are significant steps forward, but there’s more work to do.
That’s why OWCP is launching a pilot program aimed at strengthening the department-sponsored pulmonary evaluation, known as the 413(b) exam. OWCP’s pilot will develop additional medical evidence in certain cases involving miners who worked at least 15 years in qualifying coal mine employment.
OWCP is also partnering with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a more advanced training program for our black lung staff and for the physicians who examine miners for the Labor Department. The training will address the quality of medical reports and help staff develop a better understanding of medical and scientific issues associated with coal mine-related lung diseases.
In addition to the collaboration with NIOSH on training materials, OWCP is expanding its consultation with NIOSH to keep abreast of developments in medical science and has asked NIOSH to weigh in on recurring medical issues raised in claims litigation to determine whether they may be resolved by regulation.
We believe that these changes will enhance the quality and timeliness of OWCP’s claims adjudication activities, and that the end result will benefit those who have been afflicted by black lung disease and their families. We owe these workers a fair shot, and we’re doing what we can to make sure they get it.
Gary Steinberg is the acting director for the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs and Michael Chance is the acting director for OWCP’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation.