DOL Revising Black Lung Benefits Act

It would require parties — including employers, claimants, attorneys, and other authorized representatives — to disclose all medical information developed in connection with a claim for benefits, even if the party does not intend to submit the information into evidence.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs has published a proposed rule that would revise the Black Lung Benefits Act, giving coal miners greater access to their health records and requiring coal miner owners to pay all benefits due in a claim before the award can be challenged through modification. The NPRM was posted on the Federal Register's website April 29.

DOL said it would require parties — including employers, claimants, attorneys, and other authorized representatives — to disclose all medical information developed in connection with a claim for benefits, even if the party does not intend to submit the information into evidence. This would aid the nation's coal miners by giving them full access to information about their health. Currently, the claimant and the coal company liable for benefit payments can develop as much medical information about the miner as their finances allow and then choose which data to submit as evidence for the claim adjudicator's consideration. A coal miner without full access to health information may delay seeking treatment or make an uninformed decision about whether to continue to work.

"We have listened to our stakeholders and, through this proposed rule, we hope to ensure that all coal miners have full access to information about their health and to enhance the accuracy of entitlement determinations," said Leonard J. Howie III, director of OWCP. "Our goal is to work with all parties involved to make the black lung claims process as transparent and efficient as possible."

DOL noted that the proposed rule would clarify a liable coal mine company's obligation to pay benefits during post-award modification proceedings; the act's modification provision allows a coal company one year from the last payment of benefits on a claim to seek reconsideration of an otherwise effective order awarding benefits. When coal companies try to overturn awards through the modification process, they normally do not pay benefits owed under the award despite being legally obligated to do so, but the rule would require a coal company to demonstrate that it has paid all benefits owed under any effective award in the claim before the company may challenge the award through modification.

The rule is available here.

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