Lawmakers Renew Push for Black Lung Benefit Reform

PHOTO: Miner Gary FoxPlayCourtesy Fox family
WATCH ABC News Black Lung Investigation Prompts Change

U.S. lawmakers are making a fresh run at passing legislation to reform the black lung benefits program, two years after an ABC News investigation into allegations that benefits often had been wrongly denied to dying coal miners.

"The coal miners and the families who have been impacted by black lung can't wait for justice,” Sen. Robert Casey said Tuesday. “We know the system is broken and we have a basic obligation to fix it.”

In 2013, reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity revealed how lawyers and doctors retained by coal companies played a key role in helping delay and defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung disease.

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Casey, D-P.A., has worked with Democratic Sens. Sherrord Brown of Ohio, and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia to push legislation meant to address the problems highlighted in the news reports, but the legislation never advanced out of a Senate committee due to Republican opposition, according to the office of one of the Democrat lawmakers. The U.S. Labor Department had helped senators craft the bill, the department's top lawyer told ABC News last year.

In the new push, Casey is joined by lawmakers in the House: U.S. Reps. Matt Cartwright, D-P.A., and Bobby Scott, D-V.A.

The reform legislation, known as the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015, will “strengthen” the black lung program by allowing miners or their survivors to reopen cases “if they had been denied because of medical interpretations that have subsequently been discredited” and “helping miners review and rebut potentially biased or inaccurate medical evidence developed by coal companies,” among other things, according to the lawmakers.

“We can’t stop working at this issue until we achieve a basic measure of justice or those miners who suffer from black lung disease,” Scott said in a press release. “We know the black lung claims process is badly broken and in need of reform to target unethical legal and medical practices and to give miners a fair shot at justice.”

After the news reports in 2013, Johns Hopkins Medicine announced it suspended reading X-rays for black lung. Doctors in the black lung unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital had amassed a long record of reading coal miner X-rays as negative for severe black lung, a review of records found.

The unit was involved in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000, according to available case files examined by ABC News and CPI, but never found the severe form of black lung that automatically triggers benefits. Doctors there defended the readings, saying they followed appropriate medical practices.

Casey said the overall findings of the ABC News investigation with the Center were disturbing and he continues to push for reforms.

“Justice cannot abide a system in which those with black lung are denied the benefits they have a right to expect," Casey said.

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