Union: Black lung benefits easier to receive under new health bill

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Coal miners disabled by black lung disease will have an easier time collecting benefits because of provisions in the new health-care reform law signed Tuesday by President Obama, according to the United Mine Workers.

The union said the legislation restores fairness to a system that made it difficult for miners to obtain benefits. Companies that want to challenge a miner who has worked for at least 15 years and is totally disabled from lung disease, now must prove that the miner either does not have black lung disease or did not become disabled as a result of his job.

Previously, workers had to prove they were 100 percent disabled and were suffering from black lung disease in order to get financial and medical support. The disease scars and degenerates the lungs and is irreversible, often leading to death.

A spokeswoman for the Labor Department's Philadelphia office did not know how many Pennsylvanians receive black lung benefits. In December, a Mine Safety and Health Administration official said about 10,000 miners died of the disease nationwide in the past decade. A 2005 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study reported 886 cases of black lung among 29,521 miners screened nationwide from 1996-2002.

Laurie Roberts, clinical coordinator at Aveoli Corp.'s Lungs At Work clinic in Peters, Washington County, said provisions in the new health-care law should benefits miners — active and retirees — suffering from the disease.

"It's very difficult (to get black lung benefits) based on the standards" as they were, Roberts said.

The clinic in Peters, one of five in Pennsylvania that is part of the Black Lung Coalition, served about 680 retired and active miners last year. The clinic conducts annual lung testing and monitoring, assists miners with completing the application for benefits and provides representation in benefits hearings, Roberts said.

George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, declined to comment about the provisions in the new law. Joseph Cerenzia, a Consol Energy Inc. spokesman, and Hanke Parke, a spokesman for PBS Coals Corp. in Somerset, could be reached for comment.

Somerset County has one of the highest percentages of miners progressing rapidly to the advanced stages of black lung disease, according to NIOSH.

NIOSH findings in 2007 showed the incidence of black lung disease dropped as much as 90 percent from 1969-95, after the passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. But since 1995, studies show, black lung cases have been on the rise, with some miners developing advanced cases.

"It's not an issue that we want to talk about," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, a trade group in Washington.

In 2001, the association filed a lawsuit over the issue against the Department of Labor in an attempt to block rules to make it easier for coal miners to get benefits. A federal judge in August 2001 upheld those rules, which took effect at the end of the President Clinton's administration.

"If a company did not take the proper and legally required steps to protect its employees from too much exposure to respirable coal dust, then by all that is fair and right it has the responsibility to compensate that miner," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement.

Another provision affecting black lung benefits, which also was inserted in the law by Sen. Robert Bryd, D-West Virginia, would permit widows of coal miners whose spouses were totally disabled by black lung and were collecting benefits, to continue to receive those benefits without reapplying.

The Reagan administration in the 1980s forced spouses to re-apply for black lung benefits when their husbands died, reversing a longstanding rule that gave the widows their benefits, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the UMW.

Mining companies and insurance companies pay for black lung benefits — income and medical support — for the disabled miners and their survivors. The Labor Department administers the program under its Division of Coal Mine Workers Compensation program.

Additional Information:

About the disease

• Black lung disease, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a lung disease caused by inhalation of coal mine dust.

• Symptoms include shortness of breath, respiratory infections, chest pain and coughing.

• Diagnosis is made primarily by X-ray.

• There is no cure, only treatment of symptoms.

• Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 American miners 15 and older died of black lung disease.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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