WASHINGTON (AP) -- A retired coal miner who suffers from black lung disease urged Congress on Tuesday to help clear a backlog of claims of fellow miners who have the disease.
"I look to y'all to help us to get that which we need," Robert Bailey of Princeton, West Virginia told senators at a Capitol Hill hearing. "I would like to see that Congress step in and do make some changes to help process these claims" that are taking too long.
The Senate Health Committee's employment and workplace safety subcommittee held the hearing in response to a series by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News on black lung benefits claims for miners. The yearlong investigation, which won a Pulitzer prize for the Center for Public Integrity, examined how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped defeat the benefits claims of sick miners.
Black lung is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust, where the dust particles accumulate in the lungs. According to the Labor Department, more than 76,000 miners have died at least in part because of the disease since 1968.
Bailey, who worked as a coal miner for 36 ½ years, said it took him about four years to win black lung benefits, but that he's still trying to get insurance to cover the cost of a lung transplant.
There is currently a backlog of roughly 3,000 black lung cases pending before the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges, according to the Labor Department.
Sen. Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chaired the hearing, noted that has been a spike of black lung cases in recent years. Casey and five other members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama in February, urging him to make the elimination of the backlog a priority in his budget proposal.
Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher Lu testified that Obama's budget calls for an 11.5 percent increase for the Office of Administrative Law Judges. But Casey said that the department would need more than that to clear the backlog. He said he was concerned that sick miners have to wait years for their cases to be decided.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the full Senate Health Committee, recalled watching his father, a coal miner, suffer from what was then called "miner's cough."
Harkin told Lu he hoped the government would provide the kind of legal support miners need to get black lung benefits, "so that we don't just wait until they all die off. They deserve compensation, and they deserve it now."