newsfresh breath lawmakers push for more black lung benefits updates to 1972 law

Fresh breath: Lawmakers push for more black lung benefits, updates to 1972 law

mark warner
Photo: Office of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia is leading colleagues in ensuring the needs of disabled miners and their families are met.

Warner, Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Penn., John Hickenlooper of Col. and John Fetterman of Penn. are encouraging the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to evaluate the adequacy of black lung benefits. The lawmakers question whether benefits meet the income and health care needs of disabled miners and their families.

A letter was sent today to Comptroller General of the United States Gene L. Dodaro in which the senators explained that the study is critical to informing policy aimed at helping coal miners and their families in the Appalachian region.

“Many recipients of black lung benefits are living month-to-month on limited and fixed incomes,” the Senators wrote. “Though this has historically been true, many miners sick with black lung disease who are applying for benefits today are contracting the disease at a much earlier age. These benefits, therefore, are not just supplementing an early retirement — they are replacing an income for many years that may need to support children and a household, aging or sick parents, and college and retirement.”

Congress established the Black Lung Benefits Act in 1972 in conjunction with the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The legislation provides monthly compensation and medical coverage for coal miners who develop black lung disease and are disabled because of the disease.

The Senators’ letter continues: “We have also heard from miners’ attorneys that almost all of the miners and families that they represent raise the fear of repayment with them and it frequently deters these families from using any of their interim benefits that they desperately need, regardless of how strong their respective cases are because they cannot afford to take the risk of being forced to repay a large sum of money. Since these cases can last for so long, many miners die from black lung disease before they are able to confidently spend their benefits without fear of a future repayment.”’

To help ensure that adequate benefits are provided, the senators are requesting a study that answers the following questions:

  1. What are the state and Federal disability benefits that coal miners and their families can receive as a result of black lung?
  2. What challenges have miners and their families faced in obtaining black lung disability benefits, including but not limited to recoupment?
  3. How do these benefits affect the health and financial well-being of miners and their families, and what, if any, changes are needed?

Warner, Kaine, Casey, Brown and Manchin introduced the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act last year to make needed updates to the 1969 legislation. Congress approved a permanent extension of the black lung excise tax to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund in August 2022, which provides health insurance and a living stipend for individuals impacted by black lung as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“The UMWA has been at the forefront of battling black lung disease for more than fifty years. Enacted by Congress in 1969 as part of the Federal Mine Health and Safety Act, the black lung benefits system has been helpful to thousands of miners and their families. But more needs to be done. The cost of living has dramatically increased since 1969, miners are contracting the disease at younger ages and there are more severe forms of the disease. This GAO study will bring important answers on how to improve the benefit system so that all miners and their families receive the benefits they deserve,” Cecil E. Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America, said.

According to Appalachian Voices Legislative Director Chelsea Barnes, miners disabled by black lung receive $738 per month, even if they are totally disabled by the disease.

“We believe this GAO study will show that black lung disability benefits should be significantly increased to meet the needs of miners who are no longer able to work and provide for their families as a result of this debilitating disease,” Barnes said.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.