Backlog of black lung claims grabs feds' attention
The federal government needs more staff in Pittsburgh to handle an increasing number of workers' compensation cases tied to black lung disease in miners, a Labor Department official told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.
The expected reopening of previous claims that were possibly mishandled will further increase the caseload and is an added reason why the department's Office of Administrative Law Judges is seeking an extra $2.7 million next year for more staff, particularly three administrative law judges who would primarily handle black lung cases, said Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said the agency probably needs $10 million more above that request. Miners and their families wait years to get a decision on their benefit claims, he said.
“Our nation's hard-working miners and their families deserve much better than that,” he said.
Casey convened a hearing before the Senate Health Committee's Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee in response to a yearlong investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News that examined how doctors and lawyers working for the coal industry withheld evidence and misdiagnosed X-rays to defeat black lung claims.
Lu testified that the agency is projecting it will have 7,400 claims filed this year, 1,000 more than last year. A spokeswoman told the Tribune-Review the Labor Department had a backlog of 2,856 black lung cases in September 2013, the latest figures available.
Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is an incurable and potentially fatal disease caused by inhaling coal dust. The dust damages the lungs, inflaming the walls of its air sacs until the lung stiffens from the scarring of the tissue between the sacs.
More than 76,000 miners have died from the disease since 1968, according to the Labor Department.
An Indiana County coal miner waited more than three years to get his claim approved by an administrative law judge, according to the judge's Dec. 13, 2013, decision.
Bill Rising, 59, uses oxygen even while resting.
“I just lay around the house basically, sit out on the porch, occasionally go up the road to visit my grandchildren,” he said.
While he can use a riding lawn mower to cut his grass, he doesn't have enough lung capacity to use a weed trimmer to trim the edges.
“I ride the tractor with an oxygen bottle on back,” he said.
Rising was an underground coal miner for more than 22 years. He was diagnosed 11 years ago, after he had quit mining, said his wife, Wanda.
Her husband received his first benefit check in February.
“It's been a long time coming,” she said.
A problem victims have is that few lawyers will take their cases, a West Virginia attorney told the subcommittee.
The lawyer fees are relatively small, and attorneys can't collect them unless a judge approves the claim, which usually takes several years, said John Cline, a Piney View, W.Va., attorney who takes black lung cases.
The Risings said they had trouble getting a claim filed and before a judge until they heard about the Lungs At Work clinic in McMurray that provides treatment and an advocate to help with claims. Lynda Glagola, the director and advocate, couldn't be reached for comment.
Jack Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said the incidence of black lung reached its highest point between 1970 and 1974, with 29.3 percent of miners monitored by the government getting the disease.
The rate had dropped to 3.2 percent between 1995 and 1999 but has since increased to 6.4 percent in the latest testing period for which results are available, 2005 to 2009.
Though it's a nationwide problem in the coal mining industry, the rates have been highest, “predominantly among underground coal miners in the Central Appalachian states, predominantly in the smaller mines,” Howard said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Trib Media. Contact him at 412-325-4301 or at email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Chryst a miserable failure at Pitt
- Pouliot scores in NHL debut as Penguins tame Panthers
- Pitt players support Rudolph for job
- Ex-Penguins defenseman Niskanen still miffed by coaches’ firings
- Real estate union: Howard Hanna buys Langholz Wilson Ellis
- Pitt football fights to overcome steppingstone status
- Steelers’ Bell, Chiefs’ Charles elevating running back position in NFL
- Jeannette company’s miniature steam engines coveted for decades
- Westmoreland County furloughs weights and measurements director
- Steelers notebook: Bell says he’s prepared to test Chiefs defense
- Pair of NYC officers killed in ambush shooting