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Call for funding to decrease backlog of coal miners’ benefits

David Wilson, a retired coal miner from Greensboro, ran his finger along a highlighted sentence on a biopsy report of his lungs. The report said Mr. Wilson had pneumoconiosis, the medical term for black lung disease.

Mr. Wilson began the application process for black lung benefits in October 2011 and underwent a lung transplant in February 2012.

“On June 24 [2011] I retired because of hard breathing,” Mr. Wilson said. “By the last of September [2011] I was on oxygen 24/7. It happened that fast.”

Mr. Wilson still wonders why it takes so long for workers to receive compensation, and asked that of those who attended a media event at the Allegheny County Courtyard on Wednesday morning.

The number of pending cases that fall under the Federal Black Lung Program with the U.S. Department of Labor has increased by 18 percent over the past nine years. In 2004, there were 2,542 cases, by 2013 that had grown to 2,995.

Sen. Bob Casey, in conjunction with seven other representatives, wrote a letter to Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, asking for a $10 million increase to hire 20 new administrative law judges who could help stem the growth in the backlog.

“It’s a reasonable ask of the administration,” Mr. Casey said. “It’s also a reasonable ask of appropriators in both parties.”

An investigation conducted by ABC and the Center for Public Integrity in October 2013 could also add more claims to the backlog, Mr. Casey’s letter read. That investigation found Paul Wheeler, a coal industry medical expert and head of a unit that analyzes X-rays and CT scans for coal companies at John Hopkins University, never diagnosed miners with a severe form of the disease in more than 1,500 claims decided since 2000.

The DOL has since notified more than 1,000 claimants of their right to reopen or refile claims, which is “likely to result in a significant number of claim filings” over the next fiscal year, Mr. Casey’s letter stated.

“His findings have … to say they’ve been a source of controversy is an understatement,” Mr. Casey said Wednesday. “I’ve urged the DOL to not just take that into consideration but to have a policy to deal with the fact this medical evidence is badly tainted. We have to make sure there isn’t another doctor doing the same thing alleged in this case,”

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Lynda Glagola, director of Lungs at Work, a black lung respiratory clinic in McMurray, also urged more funding.

“I think certainly a way to solve the backlog is to give more money to hire more judges,” she said. “In the Pittsburgh office, we’ve gone from four judges to two judges in the last two years.”

Ms. Glagola also serves as a lay advocate for miners, having represented more than 100 in the last nine years.

“By the time I get to the hearing he may not even be there, it may just be his widow,” she said. “And definitely by the time all the appeals are done many, many times, it’s the widow who’s already dealing with the loss of her husband and the way of life as she knows it.”

There are several lawyers in Pennsylvania who represent coal companies, but not many who represent the miners themselves, she said. Miners who represent themselves often get overwhelmed by paperwork, discouraged, and let claims drop, she added.

“I believe coal miners don’t want sympathy, they don’t want handouts,” she said. “They’re willing to fight for their justice but they do need the proper recourse to do that.”

John Pippy, director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, an industry lobbying group, agreed that cutting the backlog of such cases would be a good thing for Pennsylvania.

“From an industry perspective, at least in our state, reducing the backlog would be a positive step,” he said.


Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak