Bill seeks fairer treatment for black lung victims

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Bob Casey unveiled legislation Thursday aimed at ensuring fairer treatment for coal miners with black lung disease who are pursuing benefits claims.

The bill by the two coal-state senators comes after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News examined how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped defeat the benefits claims of sick miners. The yearlong investigation won a Pulitzer prize for the Center for Public Integrity.

Among other things, the bill would require parties in a case to disclose all medical evidence; strengthen criminal penalties for making false statements in the claims process; help miners develop evidence in their claims; and create a system to pay a portion of miners' legal fees earlier in the litigation process.

Black lung is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust, where the dust particles accumulate in the lungs. According to the Labor Department, more than 76,000 miners have died at least in part because of the disease since 1968.

"Too many of our nation's coal miners have been denied basic fairness and justice," said Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, in a statement to The Associated Press.

"No longer should our nation's aging and sick coal miners be denied their medical records or decent legal representation," added Casey, who chaired a hearing on the issue in July. "The black lungs claims process is fundamentally broken and this proposal will seek to get it on a better footing."

The bill by Casey and Rockefeller, D-W.V., is long-shot to win passage this year. Casey said in conference call with reporters that he would push for the bill during the lame-duck session of Congress at the end of the year, and if unsuccessful, he'd start over next year.

He said that most miners have to wait more than a year to get their cases heard because of a backlog.

"To say this is shameful is an understatement," said Casey, who noted that black lung cases are on the rise.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association, Luke Popovich, said the bill would "unjustifiably liberalize" eligibility criteria, "opening the program to fraud and abuse and placing limits on an operator's ability to defend against unjustified claims." He said it would result in more litigation and would hurt those who "truly suffer" diseases caused by coal mine employment.

"No one wants to deny a miner with this disease the benefits he or she deserves and there are existing guidelines to ensure those are allocated as the law intends," Popovich said. "But this legislation does nothing to advance this admirable goal."


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