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Bill aimed at reforming program that provides black lung benefits to miners, survivors

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Washington — Proposed legislation that would ease access to health care and other benefits for coal miners who have black lung disease is advancing in the House.

Black lung is another name for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly condition caused by exposure to respirable coal mine dust.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act (H.R. 6102) in a markup March 16, with a 28-22 vote. The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Introduced Dec. 3 by Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), the measure would reform the Department of Labor’s Black Lung Program, which provides benefits to miners and eligible survivors or dependents, by:

  • Requiring full disclosure of medical information related to a claim, regardless of whether the information is considered evidence.
  • Allowing more miners to receive legal assistance.
  • Allowing miners or their survivors to reopen cases previously denied because of medical interpretations that since have been discredited.
  • Adjusting black lung benefits to reflect cost-of-living increases.

The DOL Office of Inspector General notes in a November 2020 report that more than three times as many coal miners were identified as having black lung disease from 2010 to 2014 compared with 1995 to 1999.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chair of the Education and Labor Committee, praised the bill in a press release, noting that it “helps miners and their survivors access legal representation, ensures benefits are not eroded due to inflation, reduces the time for processing claims, and protects taxpayers from taking a hit when a self-insured coal company goes bankrupt and cannot pay black lung claims.”

 

In a dissent to the legislation presented in a separate press release, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the committee’s ranking member, said the bill “fails to make meaningful reforms” to the Black Lung Program and will render “the already fiscally unsound Black Lung Disability Trust Fund even more unsteady.”

Although mine operators generally are responsible for paying black lung benefits, the fund helps finance benefits when no responsible mine operator is identifiable or the operator is out of business.

According to a press release from the committee, the fund stands about $5 billion in debt. A forecast from the Government Accountability Office in a May 2018 report projects that the debt could swell to roughly $15 billion by 2050 if a recently expired excise tax rate increase on coal production isn’t restored. H.R. 6462, introduced Jan. 20 by Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Scott, would reinstate the increased rate, which expired Dec. 31.

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