Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Workers' comp bill hits snag

United Mine Workers union critical of black lung proposal

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Organized labor officials said Monday the Patton administration proposal to overhaul the workers' compensation program for black lung disease is unfair to miners.

        “Basically, the whole procedure's rigged,” said Steve Earle, political director of the United Mine Workers Union.

        Bill Londrigan, president of the state AFL-CIO, said Gov. Paul Patton appeared to be making a good faith effort to make workers' compensation benefits more accessible to miners who have developed pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. It just doesn't go far enough, he said.

        “We don't think any of these issues are insurmountable,” Mr. Londrigan said.

        The proposal got its first formal legislative review Monday before the interim Labor and Industry Committee, where some members also appeared skittish.

        Rep. J.R. Gray, D-Benton, the pro-labor chairman of the House committee, said he could not vote for the bill as it is now put together.

        Black lung is a respiratory disease that can be caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Some forms of the disease can show up in small, relatively harmless spots on lung tissue. Advanced forms of the disease can dramatically impair breathing ability.

        Until 1996, there were thousands of black lung claims each year and about three-fourths resulted in some workers' compensation benefit. Coal mining companies complained miners took advantage of the system, which made virtually any exposure to coal dust eligible for benefits.

        Changes in 1996 legislation dramatically swung the pendulum. There are now only about 125 claims filed each year and 70 percent of them are dismissed.

        Mr. Patton, who pushed the 1996 changes and has been sharply criticized by mine workers since, proposed the latest modifications, which Workers' Claims Commissioner Walt Turner told the committee would make the system more fair and accessible.


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