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Rockefeller backs efforts to modernize black lung screenings

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In a news release Wednesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, threw his support behind an effort to update digital black lung screening standards.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs published for public comment a direct final rule and a companion proposed rule adopting updated standards for administering and interpreting digital radiographs for the Federal Black Lung Program. 

"This is an important step toward helping miners' black lung claims get processed more quickly and easily so they can get the health benefits they deserve," said Rockefeller. "But we can't stop there.  More still needs to be done to protect the health and safety of our miners."

The new rules will enable physicians who perform diagnostic testing of miner-claimants to use more modern medical technology to conduct a complete pulmonary evaluation.

Rockefeller has a long record of supporting efforts to tamp down black lung. The disease is caused by exposure to coal dust via inhalation. 

The disease is fairly common among coal miners and affects the afflicted's ability to breathe.

Physicians use chest radiographs as a tool in evaluating whether a miner suffers from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. The standards for administering and interpreting chest X-rays now in place address only film radiographs. As a result, only film X-rays were easily admissible in benefit-claim proceedings.

"Just as people now prefer the immediate, high quality images of digital cameras, the same can be said of our medical devices," Rockefeller said. "This rule makes sure the black lung claims process is updated to reflect advances in technology." 

Film-based technology is rapidly being replaced by digital radiography in medical facilities, and the number of physicians conducting diagnostic testing with older equipment has declined. The revised rules would allow both film and digital x-rays to be given equal importance in claims adjudication.

The revised rules update the existing film-radiography standards and provide parallel standards for digital radiographs. 

"Digital radiography enhances our ability to determine the presence of black lung disease in a timely manner for coal miners and their families, which will in turn allow us to reduce the time required to make decisions on benefit eligibility," said Gary A. Steinberg, acting director of OWCP. "By adding digital X-ray imaging to the current film technology, all parties benefit from an expanded list of approved diagnostic providers. It will also reduce OWCP's processing costs and give the parties greater access to modern medical technology."

Both the direct final rule and the proposed rule can be viewed at http://s.dol.gov/100. Interested parties may submit comments online at http://www.regulations.gov or through the other methods listed in the Federal Register until August 13, 2013.