Much room for improvement in flawed black lung benefits program, audit finds

Citing a Center/ABC News report, Labor Department auditors outlined a number of steps that could help ailing coal miners

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Retired miner Steve Day, 67, needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day to breathe. He died July 2014 at age 67, still awaiting a decision in his case for federal black lung benefits.

F. Brian Ferguson/Center for Public Integrity

An audit prompted by a Center for Public Integrity/ABC News investigation of the federal black lung benefits system has found “many opportunities” to improve the claims process for sick coal miners.

The audit, by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, reported that some 2,000 miners die of black lung each year and that more than 70,000 have died since 1970. The Center/ABC investigation found that some lawyers and physicians hired by coal companies – notably, a group of radiologists at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions – have used questionable tactics to thwart miners’ claims, which can yield monthly benefits ranging from $631.80 to $1,263.60.

Among the inspector general’s recommendations:

  • The Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) could better vet medical providers “to safeguard the integrity and image of the [black lung benefits] program.” The inspector general said it researched the credentials of all 108 physicians on the office's provider list and found one who had been reprimanded by a state board of medicine for improperly prescribing controlled substances and another reprimanded for self-prescribing medication. “OWCP was not aware of either of these reprimands...”

  • The department’s depleted Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) should staff up to handle a growing caseload. Hearings are requested in about 20 percent of the black lung claims decisions issued by the OWCP; it takes almost two years, on average, for a judge to issue a decision.

  • Judges should use video teleconferencing to conduct hearings to reduce travel time and clear the case backlog.

In a written response to the audit, the director of the OWCP said his office issued a bulletin to its district offices in March “outlining procedures for adding, reviewing, and removing physicians from its list of approved providers.”

The Labor Department’s acting chief administrative law judge wrote that the OALJ plans to hire four judges, 16 clerks, two lawyers and nine legal assistants in the current fiscal year, which ends September 30.

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