Miners and advocates rallied Wednesday at the West Virginia Capitol in support of a series of bills aimed at preventing and treating severe black lung disease.
Five bills introduced by lawmakers would make it easier to make qualify for state benefits and provide benefits to miners who have early-stage black lung.
The bills come at a time when the Ohio Valley is facing a surge in cases of severe black lung disease, also called Progressive Massive Fibrosis.
“We’re here because so many of the people that’s worked years and years years, 30, 35 years in the mines, and been exposed to coal dust their whole life and they fall through the cracks,” said Terry Abbott, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 8843, which represents miners in West Virginia’s Fayette and Kanawha counties.
“We’re here to support all the miners that should be receiving compensation for the the years they put in the mines.”
Black lung is caused by exposure to coal dust and the debilitating and progressive disease has no cure. The state and federal government both have benefits systems that allow miners to make a claim against their employer for medical expenses and a small stipend.
Advocates and miners argue access to health and financial benefits increases the likelihood sufferers can seek medical treatment.
Getting those benefits through federal or state programs can be challenging, and recent changes on the state level has made it tougher for miners to qualify.
Obstacles To Benefits
Kentucky lawmakers last year eliminated radiologists from the process miners use to qualify for benefits. In West Virginia, a decision by the state Supreme Court made it harder for miners to file a claim.
Now, advocates for black lung victims are rallying behind new legislation in West Virginia which they say can help sick miners. Kentucky representatives have also proposed a bipartisan bill that would repeal the state’s 2018 law that limits which doctors can evaluate black lung workers compensation claims.
One bill in West Virginia with bipartisan support is Senate Bill 260. Co-sponsored by two doctors, it would change the law to allow miners to receive partial disability awards if they are diagnosed with the disease. Miners diagnosed with early-stage black lung would qualify for 20 weeks of benefits.
Miners would only have to have X-rays that show the presence of severe black lung disease, not a diagnosis that the disease has yet impacted their health.
Supporters of the bill argue that because black lung is progressive, there is no doubt symptoms will worsen. Providing some benefits to miners early on may boost their ability to seek treatment or assist in re-training to allow early career miners to find other employment and limit coal dust exposure.
Another bill, Senate Bill 144, would create a state black lung program that would provide $300 in monthly benefits for West Virginia miners with at least 10 years of coal dust exposure.
“We want to simplify the black lung program here in West Virginia, so the state can take care of its own, give them what they’re due, what they’re entitled to and what they’ve worked for,” said Charles Dixon, with UMWA Local 1440 in Matewan, West Virginia.
He was one of dozens of miners who rallied at the Capitol Wednesday in support of the black lung bills.
A third bill, House Bill 2588, would challenge the recent West Virginia Supreme Court decision that made it harder for miners to file a state workers’ compensation case. It stipulates a person seeking an evaluation from the state Occupational Pneumoconiosis Board can do so at any time regardless of the time limits set to file a claim and that insurance carriers must pay for the exam.
The bills have not yet advanced to a floor vote.
Dave Mistich of ReSource partner station WVPB contributed to this story.