Pittsburgh, PA- Today U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), joined by a retired local miner from Western Pennsylvania who is struggling to receive black lung benefits, introduced a plan to reduce a claims backlog that has impacted residents throughout the region. Senator Casey recently chaired a hearing to explore the challenges that former coal miners have with this backlogged and broken system. Senator Casey also released a new letter to the Administration calling for additional resources to combat the claims backlog which has left some Western Pennsylvania residents waiting years for the benefits they desperately need and are owed.
“It is shameful that black lung benefits claimants have to wait years for their cases to be decided, but even worse is making them wait years and basing those decisions on questionable evidence,” said Senator Casey. “Our nation’s hard-working miners deserve much better. That is why I’m calling on the Department of Labor to address the shortage of resources for a growing backlog of cases and untenable delays in resolving cases.”
Casey’s hearing and push for additional resources comes after a groundbreaking investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News raised serious questions about the way the government processes these claims and the work that companies are doing to have these claims denied. The study can be found here: LINK.
The text of Senator Casey’s letter can be found below:
Hon. Shaun Donovan
Office of Management and Budget
725 Seventh St., NW
Washington, DC 20503
Dear Director Donovan
We are writing to ask for your assistance in helping to address an urgent shortage of resources that has caused a growing backlog of cases and untenable delays in resolving cases pending before the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ). In light of new caseload increases involving the Black Lung Benefits program, we expect the problem to be further exacerbated as we enter the next fiscal year. We would appreciate OMB’s consideration and assistance in securing an anomaly or other form of budget amendment as part of the anticipated Continuing Resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.
The President’s FY 2015 request provided $28.6 million for the OALJ, a $2.9 million increase compared with FY 2014; however, this increase, while a step in the right direction, will not keep pace with estimated case inflows and will, in fact, drive the backlog at least 10 percent higher by the end of FY 2015. Indeed, just to keep the backlog even with FY 2014 levels would require another $4 million above the President’s request; at least $10 million, above the President’s request, is actually required to begin reducing the unconscionable delays facing workers, their survivors and employers.
The root cause of the growing backlog in OALJ cases is a steady drop in the number of ALJs and a steep increase in the number of new cases. Over the past 8 years the number of ALJs has dropped by 20% (from 45 to 36), while the number of incoming cases has jumped by 60% (from 5,220 cases in FY 2005 to 8,320 in FY 2014). The problem has been further exacerbated by sequestration. In view of the mismatch between resources and workload, the accumulated backlog for OALJ cases (including black lung, wage and hour, longshore and harbor, whistleblower, immigration, and other statutes) has grown by over 30% in just the past two years to over 14,000 cases.
As an example of the problem, the average Black Lung Benefits Act case languishes for 42 months due to the shortage of ALJs--up from 34 months just one year ago. Delays are so extreme that it takes 429 days merely to assign a case to an ALJ.
At the July 22, 2014, Senate hearing entitled “Coal Miners’ Struggle for Justice: How Unethical Legal and Medical Practices Stack the Deck against Black Lung Claimants,” the DOL testified that new claim filings in FY 2014 have exceeded its estimates and are expected to be 10.6% higher than FY 2013. Nearly all of the new claims which are approved will be appealed to the ALJs. Moreover, following the reports that a coal industry expert witness—Dr. Paul Wheeler--had never diagnosed a miner with complicated pneumoconiosis in more than 1,500 claims involving 3,400 X-rays since 2000, the Department has notified over 1,000 claimants of their right to reopen or refile claims, which DOL testified is “likely to result in a significant number of new claim filings” over the next fiscal year.
We cannot forget that there is a human cost to these delays. The growing backlog has deprived workers and employers of timely resolution of cases under 70 statutes, including black lung, longshore and harbor workers, whistleblower, and immigration laws.
The delays are so bad that some miners would rather give up than go through the struggle for benefits. Robert Bailey, a former coal miner suffering from complicated black lung disease, testified at this recent hearing: “Even now, when a coal miner files for Black Lung Benefits, they know they are in for a battle. I just recently met a man who fought for 11 years and just recently won his benefits. He told me he was ready to give up several times but held on through much encouragement from people in the Black Lung Clinic.”
I am sure you share our concerns that justice delayed for those that are counting on their government to provide the support they so desperately need, is justice denied.
A $10 million increase above the FY 2015 budget request would allow the Department to begin to stem the growth in the backlog by enabling DOL to immediately hire 20 additional ALJs and related support staff. If this adjustment can be made as part of the Continuing Resolution, the Department of Labor could begin to solve this urgent problem.
We had previously reached out the President in a letter on February 18, 2014 raising concerns about these backlogs and would welcome the opportunity to discuss ways to cooperatively solve this problem. Staff from the Senate Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee are available to work with your staff.