At the Department of Labor, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of many people every day. Both the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are dedicated to improving the lives of America’s coal miners, their dependents and survivors. Although MSHA continues to work with the coal industry, black lung advocates, and the public health community in the coal fields to reduce miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust, miners continue to develop black lung disease. Minimizing its consequences through medical benefits and financial support is critical to the well-being of the miners and their survivors.
This is where OWCP’s Federal Black Lung Program comes into play. On September 23, 2013, OWCP published final rules implementing provisions in the Affordable Care Act commonly known as the Byrd Amendments to the Black Lung Benefits Act. Named after its sponsor the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, these rules will go into effect on October 25, 2013 and will apply to pending claims filed after January 1, 2005.
At OWCP, our mission is to protect the interests of workers who have sustained an injury or become ill on the job, including coal miners. For three decades following passage of 1981 amendments to the Black Lung Benefits Act, access to benefits was more restrictive for miners and their survivors than for those who filed a claim prior. The Byrd amendments alleviate some of these restrictions by restoring two key provisions eliminated in 1981:
• The first provision applies to both miners’ and survivors’ claims and reestablishes a rebuttable presumption of entitlement to benefits for claimants who prove that the miner worked at least 15 years in underground (or comparable surface) mining and has or had a totally disabling respiratory impairment.
• The second provision reestablishes automatic entitlement for eligible survivors of miners who were entitled to benefits on their own lifetime claims. Previously (following the 1981 Amendments), these survivors had to prove that the miner died as a result of black lung disease. This hurdle is no longer an obstacle to survivors seeking benefits.
Miners and their survivors qualifying under these provisions receive monthly benefits, augmented for any qualifying dependents. The act also provides eligible miners with medical coverage for the treatment of lung diseases arising out of coal mine employment.
All of us in OWCP are very pleased to implement the provisions of the Byrd Amendments and our new final rule. These rules will go into effect on October 25, 2013.
Critical benefits are again available to deserving individuals in the coal mining community. Many more families will now have the peace of mind and the pride of providing for their loved ones – well deserved rewards for their dedication and hard work in an industry that so greatly benefits the American people.
Gary Steinberg is the acting director for the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs and Michael Chance is the acting director for OWCP’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation