Congressmen Introduce Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015

Yesterday in the House and Senate, members of Congress introduced the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015.  The bill numbers are H.R. 3625 and S.2096.

The sponsors’ press release describes the proposed change to the law as follows:

Legislation aims to prevent coal companies from unfairly denying benefits to deserving miners and families

Washington, DC – Today, U.S. Representatives Matt Cartwright (PA-17), Bobby Scott (VA-03) and U.S. Senator Bob Casey (PA) proposed sweeping reforms to the federal program that provides benefits to coal miners suffering from black lung disease.  Federal law requires that coal companies compensate disabled miners who contract black lung, which is caused by inhaling coal dust over an extended period of time, but coal companies routinely deploy an array of unfair tactics to avoid paying miners the benefits they deserve.

To help level the playing field for miners battling this debilitating, potentially fatal disease, the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 was introduced by Cartwright, Casey, and Scott, along with Senators Joe Manchin (WV), Sherrod Brown (OH), Mark Warner (VA), and Tim Kaine (VA), as well as Representative Frederica Wilson (FL-17).

“There is undeniable evidence that, as thousands of miners are being affected by black lung, coal company lawyers are determined to exploit loopholes preventing miners and their families from receiving the benefits they deserve.  This legislation is needed to ensure that miners are able to obtain unbiased medical evidence, ample representation, and up-to-date benefit payments,” said Rep. Cartwright.

“We can’t stop working at this issue until we achieve a basic measure of justice for those miners who suffer from black lung disease,” Senator Casey said.  “We know the black lung claims process is badly broken and in need of reform to target unethical legal and medical practices and to give miners a fair shot at justice.  This is a commonsense approach that ensures impacted miners and their families don’t have the deck stacked against them.”

“Coal miners face a number of challenges pursuing federal black lung claims, including finding legal representation and developing sound medical evidence to support their claims,” said Rep. Bobby Scott.  “The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 ensures that miners have equal access to medical evidence and better access to legal resources.  It also provides a remedy for those whose claims were denied due to recent discoveries of discredited medical evidence.  This legislation will help miners and their families get the benefits they deserve.”

Analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News found that doctors who are paid by coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with black lung as having other diseases, thus preventing the miners from accessing benefits.  Furthermore, hearings in the U.S. Senate showed that coal company lawyers have caused some miners’ claims to be denied by withholding medical evidence that proves that the miner has black lung.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor has taken several steps to address the issues identified in these reports, but without congressional action, disabled coal miners who deserve black lung benefits will continue to be unfairly denied.

The Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015 will strengthen the black lung benefits program by:

Improving miners’ access to medical evidence

  • Requiring full disclosure of medical information related to a claim, whether or not such information is entered as evidence
  • Helping miners review and rebut potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies
  • Allowing miners or their survivors to reopen their cases if they had been denied because of medical interpretations that have subsequently been discredited
  • Establishing a pilot program in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to provide unbiased evidence for the most severe black lung cases

Helping miners access better, more timely benefits

  • Adjusting black lung benefits to increases in the cost of living
  • Helping claimants secure legal representation by providing interim attorney fees if miners prevail at various stages of their claim
  • Developing a strategy to reduce the backlog of black lung benefits claims still awaiting consideration

For a section by section overview of the bill, see here. For a list of changes to the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 compared with the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2014, see here.

As with the 2014 bill—which was previously discussed here when planned and here when introduced—the 2015 bill would both introduce some new changes into the black lung benefits system as well as codify into the Act some current and proposed Department of Labor initiatives.

Of likely interest to many readers, the new bill would also seek to encourage more representation of claimants by offering an advance on attorneys’ fees and reimbursement of costs for developing medical evidence.  As the summary of differences from the 2014 bill explains,

In the 2015 bill . . . progress payments can be made at 2 levels:  the District Director may award progress payments of up to $1,500 in attorney’s fees and up to $1,500 for unreimbursed medical expenses for claims with a proposed decision and award, and an ALJ may award up to $3,000 in attorney’s fees and up to $1,500 for unreimbursed medical expenses—up to a maximum of $4,500 in attorney fees plus $3,000 in medical costs for a total of $7,500 in progress payments.
I hope to find time in the not-too-distant future to provide a section-by-section analysis of the bill, but in the meantime you can read the bill yourself.

4 Responses to “Congressmen Introduce Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015”

  1. Bridgett

    Today is May 4th 2017. My husband filed a black lung claim January 2015. He is still waiting on a decesion. The last he heard March 2017 that it went to the piolet program. All of his reports are in his favor, except for the company doctor. Wondering how this usually turns out?

    Reply
    • Evan B. Smith

      Bridgett, that is longer than claims at the first step of the process (the Department of Labor’s “District Director”) usually take. It’s hard to say how cases like his usually turn out without knowing more, but if they’re doing the pilot program, then that means that he had at least 15 years in the mines. If the evidence shows that he is disabled due to his breathing, then the odds are probably in his favor. Best to you all.

      Reply

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