Imagine going into a coal mine every day. Then imagine breathing in the dust that’s a byproduct of the already dangerous work. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the Bluefield
earlier this year, “The only reason I could go was because I was governor. I would be down there for two or three hours. But I would be blowing black stuff out of my nose and throat for three or four days.”
Next, imagine contracting the debilitating black lung disease from inhaling all the silica and carbon in the “black stuff ” over the lifespan of a job, and having to prove that the dangerous work caused the illness that killed lungs and strangle breathing. And on top of that, imagine that the system of hurdles to clear before receiving any financial or medical compensation for the disease could stretch for years that already were in short supply for blacklung suff erers.
The fact is, even though this scenario defies imagination, it was what miners and their families had to endure for almost 30 years — until health care reform, which passed earlier this year, provided some humane fixes to a broken system that seemed designed to victimize sick people.
Now, thanks to measures added to the reform bill by U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., miners who are sick with disabling lung disease and have worked 15 years in mines are extended a legal presumption to benefits. If a coal company doesn’t want to pay the benefits, it’s now up to the company to prove the miner doesn’t have black lung or didn’t get sick as a result of his work.
Also, Sen. Byrd made sure that widows of miners who were totally disabled by black-lung disease and receiving benefits could continue to receive the benefits without having to re-apply for the compensation after the miner’s death. In the past, surviving spouses had to go through all the outrageous rigmarole again.
“In far too many instances, miners and their widows are dying before they can claim the benefits they have earned and were promised under federal law,” Sen. Byrd has said.
The Department of Labor reports about 69,000 people receive black-lung benefits and that the changes in how benefits are obtained will not greatly increase the cost of covering the claims.
The changes brought about by health care reform are certainly welcome, but they do not obviate two disgraces associated with the old way of doing things: that the moneyed and the politically connected have been allowed to continue to prey upon miners well into the 21st Century, and that only West Virginia’s senators — not Kentucky’s — seemed interested in helping disabled miners and their widows more easily get what they had earned. Unfortunately, that last is too easily imagined.
— The Courier-Journal, Louisville