- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Seven Democratic members of Congress are urging the Labor Department to change a proposed rule that they say would harm black-lung patients.

In a Feb. 28 letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, released Thursday, the lawmakers say that the rule would make it harder for miners to receive medical reports.

The lawmakers, including West Virginia Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, cite a section of the rule that would change evidence standards in cases before administrative law judges.

The Labor Department declined to comment on the letter.

Black lung disease is a chronic illness caused by inhaling coal dust. According to the Labor Department, it has caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 75,000 miners since 1968.

Under current regulations, a miner can receive copies of medical reports from experts by showing they need the material to prepare their case and they can’t get it elsewhere without undue hardship.

The lawmakers said the proposal would impose a tougher standard for miners to meet to get access to the reports.

“Changing this evidentiary standard in this manner would make it all-but-impossible for miners to receive copies of medical reports that were prepared by coal operators’ doctors or their experts,” the lawmakers write. They argue that the change could make it easier to conceal information needed to adjudicate black-lung benefits claims.

In addition to Rockefeller and Manchin, the letter was signed by Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania; and Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, George Miller of California and Joe Courtney of Connecticut.

“Under no circumstances should we implement a rule that imposes an even heavier burden on miners and their survivors, and rolls back the minimal rights they are currently afforded to receive copies of these medical reports,” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers credit the department for its ongoing efforts to protect miners from black lung disease, and they say the agency has taken an “important step in the right direction” with a new pilot program to allow long-term miners to compile additional medical evidence in support of their claims.


Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ffrommer

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