The Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) has issued a proposed rule intended to shore up procedural issues related to the black lung benefits program.

Under the proposal (available at: www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-04-29/pdf/2015- 09573.pdf), issued April 29, coal mine operators must pay all benefits due on a claim before the award can be challenged through modification. The proposal also gives miners claiming black lung benefits greater access to their health records.

"We have listened to our stakeholders, and through this proposed rule, we hope to ensure that all coal miners have full access to information about their health and to enhance the accuracy of entitlement determinations,"

OWCP Director Leonard J. Howie III said in a news release. "Our goal is to work with all parties involved to make the Black Lung claims process as transparent and efficient as possible.”

The Black Lung Benefits Act generally allows for modification of claim decisions based on a mistake of fact or a change in conditions up to one year after the

last payment of benefits or denial of a claim. According to OWCP, when coal companies try to overturn awards through the modification process, they commonly do not pay benefits owed under the award, despite being legally obligated to do so.

The proposed rule would require the company to demonstrate it has paid all benefits owed under any effective claim award before it may challenge the award through modification. To potentially avoid what it called “administrative difficulties,” OWCP said the requirement would only apply to modification requests made prospectively after the effective date of the final rule.  In addition, noncompliance would not prejudice the operator’s right to make additional modification requests in that same claim in the future, the agency stated.

Another proposed change would require affected parties ‒ including employers, claimants, attorneys, and other authorized representatives ‒ to disclose all medical information developed in connection with a claim for benefits, even when the party does not intend to submit the information into evidence. Currently, the claimant and the affected coal company can develop as much medical information about the miner as their finances allow, and then choose which data to submit as evidence for consideration.

“Experience has demonstrated that miners may be harmed if they do not have access to all information about their health, including information that is not submitted for the record,” OWCP said.

The agency requests that public comments be received by June 29, 2015. Commenters are encouraged to provide their submittals electronically through the federal e-rulemaking portal at www.regulations.gov using the identifying RIN number 1240‒AA10.