Coal Tattoo

Black lung, Obamacare and the election

My friend Bill Bishop, who runs a great blog called The Daily Yonder, has written an important piece about the impact of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plan (a move also endorsed by Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates here in West Virginia) to repeal Obamacare. Bill explains:

The most important law passed during the last four years for coal miners, however, may be one of the most unpopular in rural West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. It’s the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare) and within that law are benefits coal miners have been seeking for the past 30 years.

Before he died in 2010, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia amended the Affordable Care Act to benefit coal miners. He inserted a provision saying that if a person had worked as an underground coal miner for at least 15 years and suffered from the effects of pneumoconiosis (black lung), the presumption would be that coal dust caused the ailment. And the coal miner would be entitled to benefits.

Previously, coal miners had to prove that their lung problems were caused by coal dust. X-rays would be taken of ailing lungs and doctors would try to discern if coal dust were the cause. Because coal companies would appeal judgments and it is hard to tell from an x-ray if damage has been done by smoking or coal dust, very few miners who applied for black lung benefits over the years received them.

Very few. Only about 15 percent of the miners who applied for benefits received them before the Affordable Care Act was passed.

Coal miners have been battling black lung for more than two generations. After marches and protests throughout the coalfields in 1968, Congress passed a law in 1969 that was supposed to put a stop to the disease. It also paid compensation to miners afflicted by black lung.

In the early 1980s, Congress ended the presumption that miners who worked underground and showed signs of black lung were sick due to coal dust. The reasoning was that new coal dust regulations had effectively ended black lung and that anyone who showed symptoms was suffering from something other than the effects of coal dust.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Since 1969, 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung. Ten thousand have died in the last ten years.

The piece notes that Obama efforts to promulgate regulations to actually fight black lung have become stalled, and continues:

The real benefits coal miners have received have come from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). More than 700 disabled coal miners or their surviving spouses are already receiving benefits under this new provision, according to Timothy MacDonnell, director of the Black Lung Clinic at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

Sen. Byrd died in 2010, just a few months after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama. He lived long enough to see his black lung provision enacted.

Bill recalls Sen. Byrd’s incredible speech in which he warned the coal industry — and all of us — to “embrace the future“:

Byrd was 91 at the time and was revered in his home state of West Virginia. The speech was largely ignored.

Byrd was right, and continues to be right — both about the needs of those with black lung and the future of the coal industry. But his speech and his black lung provisions in “Obamacare” continue to be ignored.

According to one writer for Foreign Policy magazine, the outcome of this election “could come down to one thing: coal.” That doesn’t mean coal miners, however. Although both President Obama and Mitt Romney have pledged their support for coal, the issue of black lung — either its causes or compensation for those who contract the disease — has not arisen in this campaign.