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Ky. congressman joins Democratic effort to reform black lung benefits

Danny Johnson was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe stage of black lung disease, at age 57. He had worked for decades in various mines in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky — sometimes going more than two weeks in a row without a day off.
Roger May
Mountain State Spotlight
Danny Johnson was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe stage of black lung disease, at age 57. He had worked for decades in various mines in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky — sometimes going more than two weeks in a row without a day off.

Kentucky first-term congressman Rep. Morgan McGarvey is working with a group of Washington Democrats to make benefits for black lung victims more accessible, but the legislation lacks bipartisan support.

McGarvey and a cohort of Washington Democrats have a slew of bills in Congress aimed at improving federal benefits for coal miners, disabled and dying from black lung disease.

“We’ve got to make it easier, not harder for these people to get the benefits they deserve,” Rep. McGarvey said in a Wednesday press conference.

The federal government established a program in 1969 mandating cash benefits for coal miners disabled by the incurable black lung disease. If the worker dies from the disease, their families are eligible to receive benefits for the lost income.

In the decades since, advocates for miners say combative coal companies, who are often on the hook for payments, have made the legal process for accessing those benefits onerous and expensive.

“In our organization, some of them have been fighting for 10 years to try to get [benefits]. It seems like the companies do everything they can to hold out, hoping we’ll die,” Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association said.

Bills filed in Congress, but lack Republican support

On Wednesday, McGarvey introduced a measure in the U.S. House to help family members of diseased miners.

Currently, families can be blocked from accessing benefits without clear proof that black lung was the clear cause of a miner’s death. This bill would create a presumption that black lung was the cause of death for any diagnosed miner, unless it could be proved otherwise. The text mirrors a Senate bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Matt Cartwright, both Pennsylvania Democrats, have introduced the “Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act'' in their respective chambers.

That bill would notify miners when doctors or lawyers may be working with a coal company and have a conflict of interest. It would also increase benefit amounts to be in line with cost of living estimates and provide incremental payment to attorneys who represent miners.

“It’s hard even to get lawyers to really help fight for this because they got to wait until the case is over to get paid for it,” Hairston with the National Black Lung Association, said.

Democrats have filed multiple versions of the bill since 2014. Each time, the bill has failed to receive a committee hearing — one of the first steps to become a law.

“Too often, an issue like this…falls down on partisan lines,” Casey said. “We can’t allow that to happen. I need to find, and those who’ve worked with me on this, need to find a Republican in the Senate to support the bill.”

Lawmakers left a Wednesday press conference on the bills before reporters could ask them questions about their proposed legislation. But advocates for victims of black lung indicate there’s little progress towards getting Republicans on board.

“We have certainly met with [West Virginia lawmakers] about these two bills and tried to get their support and failed so far,” said Chelsea Barnes, Director of Government Affairs and Strategy for Appalachian Voices.

Meanwhile, a Republican effort to kneecap new mine safety rule 

Separate from efforts to reform the benefits program, black lung associations decried an amendment to block the development of a rule from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The rule would reduce the amount of toxic silica coal miners can legally be exposed to at work. It's important because the dust is causing a sharp rise in black lung disease.

In a House bill prepared for upcoming federal budget discussions, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania successfully added language that would prevent MSHA from using any budgeted money to finalize its rule.

“To be clear, this proposed rule is just the latest attempt by Democrats to close America’s mines and end the livelihoods of miners — which will be the outcome if this proposed rule goes into effect,” Perry’s chief of staff, Lauren Muglia, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star in an email.

Appalachian Voices’ Chelsea Barnes said she’s been assured by lawmakers the measure would never become law, but the group is still concerned.

“We haven’t gotten any commitments from Republican senators that they would block this,” Barnes said. “We know that things can happen in negotiations — compromises are made and we could see something really disastrous end up in that final appropriations bill.”

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.

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