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Coal mines face tougher disclosure rules for black lung claims

Coal mines face tougher disclosure rules for black lung claims

Coal companies will have to release more medical information to miners with black lung disease, under a rule that comes into force next month.

The rule also reinforces coal companies' obligation to continuing paying benefits while they dispute black lung claims.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs issued the final regulations Tuesday, which take effect on May 26, to resolve procedural and other issues that have arisen in administering and adjudicating claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act, according to the agency.

The final rule requires all parties to exchange any medical information about a miner that they develop in connection with a claim, even if they don't intend to submit the information into evidence, and would allow for sanctions for noncompliance. Previously, parties involved generally kept confidential any medical information that they did not submit as evidence, which led to situations in which coal miners did not have access to medical evidence that could bolster their claims, according to the agency.

“This rule makes clear that coal miners have a right to know a full picture of their health,” Leonard Howie, director of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, said in a statement.

The final rule also reinforces coal companies' obligations to pay benefits under existing orders even if they challenge the orders, according to the statement. The rule allows coal companies one year from the last payment of benefits to seek reconsideration of an order to pay disability or survivor's benefits. Although they are legally obligated to pay benefits while challenging these awards, coal companies commonly refuse to do so, according to the agency, so the final rule requires the operator to pay before they can challenge the award through the legislation's modification procedures.

The final rule also allows the department to fully participate in claims adjudications after a liable coal mine operator stops participating because of adverse financial developments such as bankruptcy or insolvency.

The Division of Coal Mine Workers' Compensation, known as the federal Black Lung Program, administers claims filed under the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1973, which provides monthly payments and medical benefits to coal miners totally disabled by pneumoconiosis arising out of coal mine employment and to their eligible survivors. The program has paid more than $46 billion in income and medical benefits through 2015, according to the agency.