Bill Seeks to Reform Federal Black Lung Benefits Program

West Virginia miner Gary Fox, who was wrongly denied black lung benefits. A Center for Public Integrity investigation revealed last year how companies have devised ways of getting out of paying benefits. The proposed legislation strengthens criminal provisions, meaning doctors, lawyers, and claimants could face up to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for making false or knowingly misleading statements.

Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Robert Casey (D-PA) plan to introduce a bill to ensure that miners receive fairer treatment when pursuing benefits claims.

According to the Associated Press,

The bill by the two coal-state senators comes after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News examined how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped defeat the benefits claims of sick miners. The yearlong investigation won a Pulitzer prize for the Center for Public Integrity.


Among other things, the bill would require parties in a case to disclose all medical evidence; strengthen criminal penalties for making false statements in the claims process; help miners develop evidence in their claims; and create a system to pay a portion of miners’ legal fees earlier in the litigation process.

Attention has also been drawn to the bill after data published recently by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health showed a resurgence of the most severe form of black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners.

In a conference call that discussed the bill and the recent rise in black lung cases, Senator Casey lamented the current state of the black lung benefits system. “To say this is shameful is an understatement,” Casey said. “No longer should our nation’s aging and sick coal miners be denied their medical records or decent legal representation. The black lungs claims process is fundamentally broken and this proposal will seek to get it on a better footing.”

The industry predictably opposes the bill. According to Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, the bill will “unjustifiably liberalize” eligibility criteria, “opening the program to fraud and abuse and placing limits on an operator’s ability to defend against unjustified claims.”

Casey said he plans to push the bill in November. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll try it again in 2015,” he said. “If you believe in the founding principles of this country, it’s hard to be against these measures.”

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