DOL Final Rule Opens Up Black Lung Medical Data

"This rule makes clear that coal miners have a right to know a full picture of their health. No workers should lose their lives because of known dangers that were kept from them in the interest of their employers," said DOL Office of Workers' Compensation Programs Director Leonard Howie.

The U.S. Department of Labor on April 25 published a final rule that will require all parties to exchange with each other any medical information developed in connection with a claim for black lung benefits, while also allowing those who fail to comply with the rule to be sanctioned. The final rule "addresses a longstanding problem," DOL says in its text. "The rule is intended to curb an unlawful practice. It will prevent [mine] operators from indefinitely delaying payments to claimants or reimbursement of the Trust Fund for payments made on the operator's behalf. As a result, the rule will prevent operators from taking advantage of the safeguards built into the Act to protect claimants, mainly the payment of benefits from the Trust Fund when the liable operator fails to pay. The Department has a fiduciary duty to protect the Trust Fund from such misconduct."

Congress established the Trust Fund in 1977 to serve as a payor of last resort when there is no operator that may be held liable or when the liable operator defaults on its payment obligations, but DOL found that some mine operators have delayed their reimbursement of the fund for years, and the fund had a total debt above $6 billion at the end of fiscal 2012.

The final rule clarifies that a liable coal mine operator must pay effective benefits awards by requiring payment before allowing the operator to challenge the award through modification procedures, and it resolves an ambiguity regarding how physicians' follow-up reports should be considered under the evidence-limiting rules, according to DOL. It amends the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901-944, which provides for benefit payments to coal miners and certain of their dependent survivors on account of total disability or death due to coal workers' pneumoconiosis. Benefits are paid either by an individual coal mine operator that employed the coal miner (or its insurance carrier), or the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

DOL said the rule will give miners greater access to their health information, increase the accuracy of claims decisions, and require coal mine companies to pay all disability or survivor's benefits due in a claim before modification can challenge the award.

"This rule makes clear that coal miners have a right to know a full picture of their health. No workers should lose their lives because of known dangers that were kept from them in the interest of their employers," said DOL Office of Workers' Compensation Programs Director Leonard Howie. "We have carefully considered this rule, and I am confident that these changes will bring transparency and improve claims safeguards for our nation's coal miners."

Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith said that ensuring coal miners have all the information regarding their health "will put all parties on equal footing regardless of representation and will lead to better, more accurate claims decisions for coal miners across the country."

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