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Black lung debated during federal oversight hearing

House Democrats called for strengthening health and safety protection for miners to prevent black lung disease during a recent oversight hearing. They want the addition of tools needed to enforce safety standards and making it faster for miners to file a claim.

During the hearing, two witnesses testified in support of legislative reforms to parts of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act.

Mike Wright of the United Steelworkers Union and Steve Sanders of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center highlighted the need to help miners who are afflicted with black lung disease and are overmatched by coal companies who can hire medical experts and a bevy of lawyers to fight the miners’ claims.

Additionally, the two men told the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee that coal companies have been able to game the system by withholding evidence that would allow miners to provide eligibility for benefits.

‘The black lung benefits program is an adversarial system,” said Sanders, director of the law center. “But an adversarial system only works to deliver justice when both parities have equal resources. Too often miners do not have legal representation and, being disabled and not working, they do not have the financial ability to pay for sophisticated medical testing to support their claim.

“The black lung benefit program needs improvements to provide for fairness and the efficient adjudications of claims.”

According to transcripts of their testimony, they said the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 will help miners fight deep-pocket coal companies.

In related news, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown lauds proposed ‘Black Lung’ legislation.

Among other things, the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015 would help miners review and rebut “potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies” and allow them to reopen cases if benefits were denied on the basis of discredited medical opinions, the legislation reads.

As the legislation was being announced in September, the Labor Department and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — were unveiling a memorandum of understanding the agencies said would establish a quality assurance program for X-rays used to determine whether claimants are entitled to benefits. A Labor Department inspector general report earlier this year found flaws in the X-ray reading process, reported the Center for Public Integrity.

“This interagency agreement will provide a process to monitor and assess the quality of X-ray readings submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the adjudication process,” Leonard Howie III, head of the department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, said in a statement.

On average, Sanders testified, it probably takes eight to nine months before claim examiners issue a decision in a miner’s case.

After the decision, either party may request a hearing. Sanders said in his experience probably 98 percent of awards at the district director level result in the coal company requesting a hearing with the Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ), he testified.

“If a hearing is requested, the parties may develop additional evidence. It is common during this time to depose medical experts — pulmonary specialists, radiologists or pathologists — who have either examined the miner or reviewed X-rays, CT scans, tissue samples or reports from other doctors.

“Presently, if a hearing is requested, it will be two or three years after the case is referred to OALJ before the case is heard by an administrative law judge and likely another year before the ALJ issues a decision,” Sanders said during testimony.

Either side can appeal the ALJ decision to the Benefits Review Board, Sanders testified. Companies generally appeal awards. Written arguments addressing the law and the facts are filed with the board. An appeal to the board takes a year to decide. The board can affirm or reverse the ALJ. In some cases the board will return the case to the ALJ for further findings or additional explanation, which results in an ALJ decision which can again be appealed to the board.

Although final decisions of the board are reviewable in the U.S. Courts of Appeals, generally the board decision is the last action in the case, according to his testimony.

As of Friday afternoon, the House version, H.R. 2625, of the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015 was referred to three committees, and only one has had a hearing, according to Congress.gov. The Senate version, S. 2096, was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

This article was written by DANIEL TYSON from The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.