The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act would reform the federal program that provides benefits to coal miners suffering from black lung disease. The bill would:
- Protects coal miners’ health and promotes the fair adjudication of claims by requiring the parties to disclose all medical evidence developed in black lung cases. Miners would be entitled to copies of doctors’ diagnoses of their medical condition, regardless of whether or not the doctor will testify at trial.
- Provides miners with greater access to legal representation by creating a system to pay a portion of their attorneys’ fees earlier in the litigation process. Under current law, attorneys who represent miners must often wait for several years, or longer, before receiving their fees from coal operators who are liable for their black lung benefits.
- Restores benefit increases for black lung beneficiaries and provides for automatic cost-of-living adjustments in the future. Because black lung benefits are currently tied to the rate of pay for federal employees, cost-of-living adjustments for beneficiaries were blocked as a result of federal employee pay freezes in 2011 to 2014.
- Strengthens criminal penalties for making false statements in the claims process and grants ALJs explicit authority to issue sanctions when a party withholds medical evidence from a claimant.
- Helps miners develop medical evidence in their black lung claims by expanding an existing DOL pilot program to require that the Secretary of Labor provide miners with expanded assessments of their pulmonary condition when it has been challenged by a coal operator.
- Improves the quality of medical evidence by requiring the Department of Labor to ensure that all of the doctors on its list of those approved to provide evaluations of miners’ pulmonary conditions are properly qualified and free from conflicts of interest.
- Creates a one-year pilot program to provide impartial diagnoses of chest x-rays. Authorizes NIOSH to establish panels made up of three physicians who are certified to classify x-rays to provide reports that can be used in claims proceedings as a service to claimant or operators on a fee-for-service basis. The pilot would be limited to claims involving the most severe form of black lung disease known as progressive massive fibrosis, where eligibility for benefits is presumptive and irrefutable. Allows all claimants to request a re-adjudication of their claim if it was denied because of the testimony of a medical expert who has been discredited by the Secretary of Labor. This could impact as many as 1,500 claims since the year 2000.
“These workers contracted this always-fatal occupational disease because they went to work in coal mines whose operators did not take the necessary steps to properly protect them.” –Cecil Roberts