WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs is publishing for public comment a proposed Black Lung Benefits Act rule that gives coal miners greater access to their health records and requires coal miner owners to pay all benefits due in a claim before the award can be challenged through modification. The NPRM was posted on the Federal Register's website for public inspection today.
The rule requires parties — including employers, claimants, attorneys and other authorized representatives — to disclose all medical information developed in connection with a claim for benefits, even when the party does not intend to submit the information into evidence.
Requiring all parties to exchange medical data in claims for black lung benefits would protect the nation's coal miners by giving them full access to information about their health. Currently, the claimant and the coal company liable for benefit payments can develop as much medical information about the miner as their finances allow, and then choose which data to submit as evidence for the claim adjudicator's consideration. A coal miner without full access to health information may delay seeking treatment or make an uninformed decision about whether to continue to work. Making medical information freely available to all parties will also enhance the accuracy of entitlement determinations.
"We have listened to our stakeholders, and through this proposed rule, we hope to ensure that all coal miners have full access to information about their health and to enhance the accuracy of entitlement determinations," said Leonard J. Howie III, director of OWCP. "Our goal is to work with all parties involved to make the Black Lung claims process as transparent and efficient as possible.
The rule also proposes making clear a liable coal mine company's obligation to pay benefits during post-award modification proceedings. This addresses an issue regarding the BLBA's modification provision, which allows a coal company one year from the last payment of benefits on a claim to seek reconsideration of an otherwise effective order awarding benefits. When coal companies try to overturn awards through the modification process, they commonly do not pay benefits owed under the award despite being legally obligated to do so. The proposed rule would require the coal company to demonstrate that it has paid all benefits owed under any effective award in the claim before the company may challenge the award through modification.
The NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on April 29, 2015 and available at https://federalregister.gov/a/2015-09573.
Data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows coal workers' pneumoconiosis (also known as black lung) was a cause or contributing factor in the death of more than 76,000 miners since 1968. Caused by breathing unhealthy coal mine dust, this disease has cost more than $45 billion dollars in federal compensation benefits. Evidence shows that miners continue to get the disease, even younger miners.
The mission of the Division of Coal Mine Workers' Compensation, the Federal Black Lung Program, is to administer claims filed under the Black Lung Benefits Act. The Act provides compensation to coal miners who are totally disabled by pneumoconiosis arising out of coal mine employment, eligible survivors of miners whose death was attributable to or hastened by pneumoconiosis, and survivors of miners who were entitled to benefits at the time of their death. The Act also provides eligible miners with medical coverage for the treatment of lung diseases arising out of coal mine employment. For more information visit: http://www.dol.gov/owcp/dcmwc/