Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, the House Education and Labor committee reported H.R. 6102, the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2021, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (PA) and co-sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams (NC), Jamaal Bowman (NY) Andre Carson (IN), Kweisi Mfume (MD), and Bobby Scott (VA). The bill, which was reported from the committee on a party-line vote, proposes changes to the Black Lung Benefits Program that will make it easier for coal miners and their dependents to access the benefits of the program, which include a living stipend and healthcare benefits.
Under current law, filing a claim under the Black Lung Program is prohibitively arduous.
“Because this process is so difficult for miners and their survivors to complete, many give up along the way, while others never bother trying,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “Other miners try for years to have their claim honored, only to pass away before they finish. Miners who have given their health to power our country should not be made to endure such a burdensome procedure.”
Among the many improvements in the bill, the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act helps miners develop the medical evidence needed to support their case, and helps ensure that miners have legal representation and support through the claims process. The bill also provides a slight and much needed increase to miner benefit levels. It develops a new system for determining benefit levels so that they are not tied to the rate of pay for federal employees but instead to annual cost-of-living adjustments.
The bill, which will now be considered by the House Way and Means committee, also takes steps to improve the solvency of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is losing millions of dollars a week after Congress failed to extend the Black Lung Excise Tax at its historic, higher rate before the end of 2021. During the hearing, Rep. Jones (NY) noted that the Government Accountability Office expects the trust fund’s debt to grow to more than $15 billion by 2050.
“While the provision of this bill requiring the Department of Labor to strengthen regulations on coal companies will help with the solvency of the trust fund, it will not fully address the solvency crisis.” said Chelsea Barnes, Legislative Director for Appalachian Voices.
Another bill, HR 6462, the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Solvency Act of 2022, sponsored by Rep. Scott (VA), is currently pending in the House Committee on Ways and Means. This bill would increase the Black Lung Excise Tax to its higher, historic rate in order to ensure coal companies are paying into the trust fund at a rate more sufficient to address the solvency crisis.
“We are grateful for the leadership of Rep. Cartwright and Rep. Scott to ensure that coal miners disabled with black lung disease have access to the benefits promised to them and their families,” said Barnes. “Congress must act quickly to pass both the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act and the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Solvency Act. Together, these bills provide the long-term support our coal miners have earned.”
Appalachian Voices is a leading nonprofit advocate for a healthy environment and just economy in the Appalachian region, and a driving force in America’s shift from fossil fuels to a clean energy future.