'Sweeping reforms' proposed for black lung benefit program

Flawed system of compensating sick coal miners was exposed in 2013 CPI-ABC News investigation

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 Updated:

Sept. 30, 2015: This story has been updated.

Members of Congress on Tuesday proposed what they called “sweeping reforms” in the federal black lung benefits program, citing a 2013 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News.

That project, “Breathless and Burdened,” revealed how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped deny meager benefits and medical care to miners suffering from black lung. It led to the immediate suspension of the black lung program at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions as well as policy changes within the U.S. Department of Labor.

In a news release Tuesday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and other lawmakers said they had introduced legislation to “level the playing field” for sick miners. Among other things, the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015 would help miners review and rebut “potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies” and allow them to reopen cases if benefits had been denied on the basis of discredited medical opinions, the release said.

“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,” Casey said in a prepared statement. “This legislation is needed to ensure that miners are able to obtain unbiased medical evidence, ample representation and up-to-date benefit payments.”

As the legislation was being announced, the Labor Department and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – were unveiling a memorandum of understanding the agencies said would establish a quality assurance program for X-rays used to determine whether claimants are entitled to benefits. A report by the Labor Department’s inspector general earlier this year found flaws in the X-ray reading process.

“This interagency agreement will provide a process to monitor and assess the quality of X-ray readings submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the adjudication process,” Leonard Howie III, head of the department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, said in a statement.

It’s unclear what changes, if any, have been made within the black lung unit at Johns Hopkins. A university spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

(Update, Sept. 30, 2015, 5:20 p.m.: The black lung unit at Johns Hopkins had been suspended since Nov. 1, 2013. Jania Matthews, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said on Wednesday that "following a thorough review," officials decided not to resume the program. Dr. Paul Wheeler, who headed the unit, has retired, the spokeswoman said.)

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