Health professionals, lawyers and U.S. senators met in Washington Tuesday to explore the challenges faced by coal miners suffering from black lung disease.
The U.S. Department of Labor will look to hire two administrative law judges and bring back a retired judge in Pittsburgh in 2015 to handle growing black lung claims, according to Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu.
There are roughly 14,000 backlogged black lung cases across the country, according to Lu. The average claimant waits more than a year for a case to be assigned to an administrative judge and another 90 to 120 days for it to be heard.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) said the current black lung benefits system is full of mendable flaws.
“I’m deeply concerned that miners who have been afflicted have to wait years for their cases to be decided,” he said.
Robert Bailey is a former coal mine worker from West Virginia. He considers himself lucky, receiving his benefits after a four year battle.
“It’s still not easy,” he said. “It’s hard. You still have the disease. You struggle with the different things. I’m fortunate. It took me almost four years. The other miners have been there a lot longer and they haven’t received anything.”
In response to a one-year investigation into the black lung program by the Center for Public Integrity, the Department of Labor has contacted about 1,100 people whose claims were appealed by the coal industry. If these cases are reopened, Lu said they will add to the backlog.
In order to reduce the number of pending cases, Lu said the Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) will need additional resources, citing a request for an 11.5 percent increase in the ALJ 2015 budget.
Casey said America’s miners have worked too hard to be treated this badly.
“Justice delayed, as we often have said, is justice denied,” he said, “and in this case, for coal miners suffering from the debilitating effects of black lung disease. Our nation’s hardworking miners and their families deserve much, much better than that.”