The U.S. Department of Labor wants to stop coal companies from withholding medical evidence from miners seeking financial benefits after being disabled by black lung disease.
The rule, proposed Tuesday, would address a major problem spotlighted in the Center for Public Integrity series “Breathless and Burdened,” which exposed how prominent doctors and lawyers helped coal companies defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung disease.
The Labor Department singled out the case of coal miner Gary Fox, saying it “highlights the longstanding problem claimants face.” The first installment of the Center series featured Fox’s story — and it showed how the coal industry’s go-to law firm, Jackson Kelly PLLC, sometimes withheld crucial medical evidence from miners.
Under federal law, miners who are disabled by black lung, a debilitating disease caused by inhaling dust in coal mines, are entitled to benefits that mining companies must pay. But the companies often fight the miners’ claims, and they almost always have far more money and access to highly-credentialed doctors, giving them a powerful advantage. Previously, the companies’ lawyers could pick the most advantageous pieces of this evidence to submit, while not revealing the rest.
In Fox’s case, he lost after the law firm withheld two key medical reports indicating that Fox had an advanced stage of black lung. To support his family, Fox returned to the mines to work for five more years, getting progressively sicker.
Finally, he no longer could work, so he retired and filed a new benefits claim. Unlike in his previous claim, he was able to find a lawyer to represent him and, after months of fighting with Jackson Kelly, learned of the withheld reports.
Fox won his case in February 2009. Two months later, he died waiting on a lung transplant.