GAO Report Highlights W&L Black Lung Clinic

Lexington, VA Thursday, December 03, 2009

The U.S. General Accounting Office has released a report examining processes and outcomes in the Federal Black Lung Benefits program. The program provides medical and income assistance to coal miners who suffer total disability or death due to lung disease caused by coal dust. The Black Lung Clinic at Washington and Lee University School of Law is mentioned several times in the report as a prominent provider of legal services for those seeking federal benefits.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) undertook the study of the program, which is administered by the Department of Labor (DOL), to determine how long it takes to process and resolve black lung benefits claims and to explore reasons claims are denied. The GAO also examined the barriers that confront miners or their survivors in pursuing their claims.

In 2008, 87 percent of claims were initially denied by the DOL, setting the stage for a long process of resolution that can run anywhere from 3 to more than 8 years. The GAO found that coal miners face a number of challenges pursuing federal black lung claims, including finding legal representation and developing sound medical evidence to support their claims. Non-profit providers of medical and legal services for miners are insufficient nationwide, and the difficulty in obtaining such services discourages many from seeking benefits.

Among the recommendations in the report, the GAO concluded that structural changes within the Black Lung Benefits program are necessary to increase claimant representation, thus providing more access to the kinds of services provided by W&L's Black Lung Clinic.

In the process of compiling the report, representatives of the GAO spoke with several W&L faculty involved with the Clinic, including founders and former directors Brian Murchison and Mary Natkin, and current director Tim MacDonnell.

Founded in 1996, W&L's clinic has a success rate roughly five times the national average in black lung benefits cases. Under the supervision of clinical law faculty, upper level law students evaluate claims, develop evidence, conduct discovery, depositions, and hearings, and write motions, arguments, and appeal briefs. Students working in the Clinic often have the opportunity to argue cases before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Clinic currently has 42 active cases and continues to have great success, winning two cases last year decided by the 4th Circuit.

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