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Senators introduce bill to ease the burden on families of deceased miners

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Survivors of deceased miners face difficulties securing the benefits to which they are entitled due to bureaucratic proof requirements that are often too difficult to meet.

The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act, introduced this week by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), would ease these restrictions and make it easier for miners’ survivors to successfully claim these benefits.

The 1972 Black Lung Benefits Act provides monthly benefits to the surviving family members of coal miners who die from black lung – a disease brought on by the long-term inhalation of coal dust. These benefits are paid for either by respective coal mining companies or the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

However, due to restrictions associated with the Black Lung Benefits Program, survivors must establish that black lung was a substantial contributing cause of death – a burden of proof that is often difficult to meet since autopsy reports may not specifically site black lung, and instead reference related conditions.

Details

The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act of 2021 would make it easier for miners’ survivors to apply for black lung benefits by:

  • Establishing a rebuttable presumption that a miner’s death was due to black lung if they were disabled due to pneumoconiosis at the time of death: Currently, survivors who are applying for black lung benefits but do not fall within the Department of Labor regulation §718.305, must identify all sources of medical information about the miner and prove to the Department of Labor that the miner’s death was due to or hastened by black lung. This bill would add to existing law by allowing survivors of miners to gain benefits by proving disability if they cannot prove the miner’s death was due to or hastened by black lung.
  • Improving access to legal representation for miners and survivors of miners: The current system for adjudicating black lung claims is often unbalanced, where miners and survivors of miners lack access to resources when filing for benefits. This legislation would direct the Secretary of Labor to establish a payment program to pay attorneys’ fees and other reasonable medical expenses incurred while establishing the claimant’s case. This change would help ensure that miners and survivors of miners are not at a disadvantage in securing benefits due to a lack of financial resources.

Bill text is available here. A summary of the bill is available here.

Senators weigh in

“After losing a loved one to such a devastating disease, no family wants to worry about whether they’ll be able to put food on the table or a roof over their heads,” Sen. Warner said. “Unfortunately, this is too often the case for the families of deceased miners, who are forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to get access to the benefits they deserve. This legislation will make proof requirements more reasonable and alleviate the burden for grieving families in Virginia’s mining communities.”

“Virginia’s miners work so hard over the course of their career to power our Commonwealth, so the least we can do is make sure their surviving family members are able to access the hard-earned benefits they’re entitled to,” Sen. Kaine said. “We must pass this legislation to ensure grieving families aren’t forced to deal with the burden of unreasonable proof requirements and can access the resources they need to support themselves.”

“Our brave miners and their families have sacrificed so much to provide America with the energy we need to be the most powerful nation in the world. For those miners who lost their lives due to black lung disease, we must ensure their families are cared for by providing them with the benefits they deserve. I’m proud to introduce the Relief for Survivors of Miners Act, which will help cut through the bureaucratic red tape that can delay access to benefits, as well as improving access to legal representation for miners and the survivors of miners. I will continue to advocate for miners and their families in the Mountain State and I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to help us pass this commonsense legislation,” Sen. Manchin said.

“Miners helped build this nation—they powered our factories and homes and fueled decades of prosperity by doing some of the most difficult work there is. We promised to take care of miners if their years of hard work took a toll on their health, and we must maintain that promise by ensuring the benefits they earned are made easily available to their surviving loved ones,” Sen. Casey said. “The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act would remove unfair barriers that make it hard for families, who have lost a loved one to black lung disease, to receive the earned benefits owed to them.”

“Ohio miners have put their health at risk for years to power our country – and, unfortunately, too many of those miners succumb to complications from black lung disease, leaving loved ones to worry about how they’ll be able to make ends meet,” Sen. Brown said. “Congress must now do its part and pass the Relief for Survivors of Miners Act, so we can ensure these miners’ families don’t have to navigate an interminable claims process just to get the benefits they have earned.”

Support

This legislation has the support of a number of organizations, including United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC), and Appalachian Voices.

“Too many families in the coalfields have to watch their loved ones suffer and die from black lung disease. The survivors of these coal miners are then confronted with a black lung benefits system that is often complex, lengthy and stressful. We support Senator Warner’s efforts to make the claims process more accessible to survivors and to help ease their considerable burdens,” said Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

“Not only is black lung devastating to a miner’s health, but it also deals a serious economic blow to families, and filing a claim for black lung benefits can be incredibly burdensome and drawn-out. These folks have been through enough. Accessing black lung benefits should be as simple and streamlined as possible. Appalachian Voices supports this bill, and we are appreciative of Senator Warner’s efforts to advocate for coal mining families,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian Field Coordinator of Appalachian Voices.

“These miners and widows need to know they’re not alone. Senator Warner has come to Southwest Virginia and listened to us, and he’s working hard to do the right thing for us. We have hope. We know we are not alone,” said Vonda Robinson, miner’s wife and VP of National Black Lung Association, Scott County.

“We really appreciate Senator Warner fighting for this. Not too many politicians want to bring any of these issues up,” said Gary Hairston, coal miner and National Black Lung Association President, Fayette County, W.Va.


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