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Advocates urge Congress to update black lung program

Erica Peterson

Once upon a time, it was thought that a coal miner might at least be able to work a few decades before struggling for breath. But as miners begin to drop out of the workforce due to the deadly and incurable black lung disease, they are losing out on the prime of their lives and a lifetime of wages.

When a miner is diagnosed with black lung, they can seek money from a former employer to help pay for medical visits or disability, similar to a worker’s compensation plan.

But advocates argue the program’s benefits have been diminished by inflation, and the approval process is a labyrinth of applications, doctors visits and bureaucracy.

They’re urging federal lawmakers to boost benefits and streamline the process through the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act before the end of the year, when a newly divided Congress takes office.

Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association, says lawmakers need to improve the benefits program. Her husband, a former coal miner with black lung, receives a little more thana thousand dollars per year from the program.

“I mean, that's below poverty level,” Robinson said.

Congress extended the coal company excise tax that funds the program earlier this year after years of lobbying, but advocates say improving the benefits system needs to be the next step.

The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act would increase monthly benefits for retired miners, ensure miners’ access to legal representation and reduce the time it takes to process black lung claims. It would also punish coal companies that make false claims.

Over the years, studies have shown that even as employment in the coal industry declines, the prevalence of black lung continues to increase. New black lung cases are appearing in younger and younger miners and coal industry-funded doctors often misdiagnose black lung patients.

Courtney Rhoades, the black lung organizer for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, said inflation and job scarcity make the bill a matter of survival for coal miners’ families, and for their communities as a whole.

“We live in an area where people are constantly trying to find a job to provide for their families, where jobs are pretty scarce to be frank,” Rhoades said. “Not only are we going to give people a raise in a time when inflation is so high, but we're also going to give an opportunity for them to provide back into the community where they live.”

Though some have proposed resuscitating coal country’s economy by putting miners back to work in mine reclamation, renewable energy and other jobs requiring manual labor, those with black lung often find themselves unable to work the way they once did.

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced the update to the black lung program late last year.

“Mine workers and their survivors deserve a fair benefits system based on unbiased medical advice,” he wrote in a statement. “We’ve been in talks with leadership in the House and the Senate in the hopes that the bill would receive a Floor vote before the end of the year.”

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee advanced the bill in March this year, but it still hasn’t moved past its next step, the House Ways and Means Committee. Meanwhile a Senate version of the bill introduced over the summer hasn’t moved at all.

Opponents say the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund already puts too much burden on taxpayers and coal operators.

In a committee report, Republican opponents argued that the bill wasn’t financially solvent because it would increase the amount of benefits paid out of the already-strained Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Even if the bill doesn’t pass by the legislative day of the current Congress on Dec. 15, supporters hope parts of the measure would be included in the year-end omnibus spending package.But it’s possible those discussions continue into next year, when a new set of lawmakers is sworn in.

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Katie Myers is covering economic transition in east Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY. She previously worked directly with communities in Kentucky and Tennessee on environmental issues, energy democracy, and the digital divide, and is a founding member of a community-owned rural ISP. She has also worked with the Black in Appalachia project of East Tennessee PBS. In her spare time, Katie likes to write stage plays, porch sit with friends, and get lost on mountain backroads. She has published work with Inside Appalachia, Scalawag Magazine, the Daily Yonder, and Belt Magazine, among others.
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