Senate health reform bill streamlines black lung assistance

black_lung_illustration.jpgMiners suffering from an occupational illness that's on the rise across Appalachia's coalfields could find some relief if a provision in the Senate's version of the health reform bill survives the reconciliation process.

U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) included language in the Senate measure passed last month that would make it easier for miners to receive benefits through the national black lung program. Currently, miners must prove that black lung significantly contributed to their disability -- but Byrd's provision would instruct administrative law judges to presume that miners with 15 or more years in the mines who are suffering from a totally disabling lung disease would qualify for benefits unless there's evidence they don't have the disease or that it came from somewhere other than the mine.

The provision would also automatically allow a surviving spouse to continue receiving benefits after a miner's death rather than having to reapply, a process that can take years.

"There are thousands of widows who are unfairly denied black lung benefits because of excessive adjudicatory hurdles," Byrd spokesperson Jesse Jacobs told the Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register. "In too many cases, miners and their widows are dying before they can claim the benefits they have earned and were promised under federal law."

While the law creating the black lung program originally allowed widows to automatically collect their husband's benefits, Congress changed the law during the Reagan administration to require spouses to make separate claims.

Also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, black lung is caused by coal dust build-up in the lungs, a condition that leads to inflammation, fibrosis and ultimately destruction of lung tissue. About 10,000 miners have died of the disease over the past decade.

After years of decline, the incidence of the incurable disease is increasing in eastern coalfield states including West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. Some experts believe the climbing rate could be tied to longer work shifts as well as the mining of more difficult coal seams requiring more rock cutting, which creates more dust.

The Black Lung Benefits Act provides for monthly payments for coal miners -- as well as for coal transportation and mine construction workers exposed to coal dust -- who have been totally disabled from black lung disease. It also provides for monthly payments for certain survivors, including spouses, orphaned children and totally dependent parents, brothers and sisters.

Individual coal mine operators are liable for the payment of benefits, which range from $600 to $1,200 a month. The operators also pay an excise tax on coal sold that finances a trust fund that pays for administering the BLBA. The trust fund pays benefits to miners in certain cases, such as when operators default on payments.

In some cases, sick miners have successfully applied for black lung benefits only to have the award overturned on appeal by the companies. At that point, the miners are forced to repay what they received. There have been allegations that lawyers hired by the coal companies have used deceptive tactics to cheat miners out of deserved benefits.

Last month, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Joe Main toured coal states promoting a new federal initiative to stamp out black lung disease. The plan involves educating miners about prevention, enforcing existing laws and developing new regulations. Main also wants miners to wear monitors to measure their intake of coal particles.

Main has promised that MSHA would by this coming September unveil new proposed regulations lowering limits for breathable coal dust in mines.

(Image showing the damage from black lung from the website of United Mine Workers of America.)