Press Release

Appalachian advocates praise U.S. Senate bill to improve federal support for miners with black lung

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 13, 2022

Contact:
Chelsea Barnes, 614-205-6424, chelsea@appvoices.org
Rebecca Shelton, 859-893-0543, rshelton@aclc.org

Today, five U.S. senators introduced the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act aimed at improving the benefits process for disabled coal miners and their families. The bill is sponsored by Senators Bob Casey, D-Pa., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tim Kaine, D-Va., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va.

The bill, which has been introduced in previous congressional sessions, proposes changes to the benefits process and provides legal clarity on the definition of complicated black lung disease. Under current law, filing a claim under the Black Lung Program is arduous. The bill also provides a small increase in miner benefits levels and takes steps to ensure that coal operators do not shed their liability for black lung benefits onto the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. An identical version of the bill passed the House Education and Labor Committee in March.

“Black Lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) is a disease that has disabled and killed thousands of coal miners in the U.S., and the federal program that is intended to provide compensation to those disabled miners and their dependents has historically been far too complex,” said John Cline, a West Virginia attorney who represents miners in their black lung claims. “The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act provides much needed assistance for miners and their dependent family members applying for disability compensation and death benefits. This legislation is long overdue and should be supported by Republicans and Democrats alike!”

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.

“Right now, a single miner receives just $708 a month for a living stipend,” said Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “Most will tell you that the most critical part of their benefits package is the health care because that living stipend covers so little of their living expenses. These folks are living on fixed incomes. We should be doing everything we can to improve their quality of life, and a small increase in their living stipends is a part of that.”

The bill, which will be considered in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, 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.

“We applaud the senators for provisions to strengthen regulations on coal companies that will help with the solvency of the trust fund,” said Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices. “However, this will not fully address the solvency crisis. We need Congress to take action immediately to restore the former excise tax rate.”

Another bill, S. 2810, the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Solvency Act of 2022, sponsored by Senator Manchin, is currently pending in the Senate Finance Committee. This bill would increase the Black Lung Excise Tax to its higher, historic rate for 10 years 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 Senators Casey, Brown, Kaine, Manchin, and Warner 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.”

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