Whitesburg KY

Black lung victims hope ‘ObamaCare’ stays

The room is filled with mostly men, all with gray hair, many with portable oxygen tanks under their arms.

They’re sick, they’re scared, and they’re mad.

This is the Southeastern Kentucky Black Lung Association, and every retired miner in the room is feeling the effects of decades of breathing coal dust. They worked hard, they have fought hard to get the health and compensation benefits they were promised. Now they’re afraid the new Republican-controlled government will take those benefits away with the stroke of a pen when it repeals the Affordable Care Act.

“I voted for Donald Trump. Most of us here probably did because of coal,” said Neal Yonts, 76, of McRoberts, who worked in the mines for 35 years and is still trying to get his black lung benefits. “But I don’t think Trump is the problem. I think our problem is Mitch McConnell and the people in Congress.”

Yonts and others are holding out hope that Trump will veto a plan they fear is moving through Congress that will take away their black lung benefits either by rolling the money from the trust fund into an overall healthcare plan, or by simply repealing the ACA. But hope only goes so far.

Many people who voted for an all Republican government did so because they hated “ObamaCare,” the label Congressional opponents slapped on the ACA when it was passed seven years ago without a single Republican vote.

Now, after more than 50 failed attempts to scuttle the law, and with control of the House, the Senate and the White House, Republicans in Congress thought repeal was within their reach.

That was November. But as a February rolled around, people who previously hated the law realized that repealing ObamaCare means they would lose their insurance and lose black lung disease benefits that were improved by an amendment to the law inserted by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Now members of Congress are suddenly running from public meetings as angry crowds of constituents — some of who already loved the ACA and some of whom just recently became converts — tell them in no uncertain terms that they can’t live without insurance, and Congress needs to make sure they don’t. For many of the Kentucky miners, it’s a double-barreled assault by their own Senator. First there was his opposition to the Miners Protection Act, which would have rescued the UMWA pension fund, and now this.

“People in other countries are interested in black lung,” Yonts said, pointing out a story about it in a Norwegian newspaper, and noting that a German newspaper is also planning to visit. “Right here, we’ve got Americans against Americans.”

Komas Bryant of Elkhorn Creek in Pike County, packed an oxygen tank to the meeting with a nasal cannula wrapped around his face. He spoke with the Norwegians, and said now he’s been invited to Washington, D.C., for a debate about black lung.

He told the miners gathered at the Letcher County Extension Service he will go, but he wants someone to go with him, and he wants everyone else to call their Senators and Congressman, and demand action. Bryant said it’s about taking care of each other, not about politics.

“I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. I’m a Christian, more than anything,” he said.

Bryant, who got his benefits in just six months, said his benefits came under the Byrd Amendment, which says anyone who has spent 15 years in the mines is automatically presumed to have black lung. They just have to prove they’re disabled. Bryant said that was no problem for him. He worked 17 years on a roof drill, and his lungs are full of glass from the silica in the rock dust, as well as coal dust.

He’s worried his benefits will be taken away if the ACA is repealed, and even though there is some worry that miners will have to pay back money they have received if that happens, he said he kept receipts for everything – including his new vehicle – and his lawyer has told him the insurance company won’t be able to get that money back.

Evan Smith, a Whitesburg attorney who handles many black lung cases, said the law used to require miners to prove mining caused their black lung. The Byrd Amendment to the ACA requires companies to prove it didn’t. Miners still have to prove disability, and that, Smith said, is a “very high hurdle.”

“You don’t exactly have to be on your deathbed to qualify, but you have to be a few steps away,” he said.

The other thing the ACA did was let surviving spouses continue to receive benefits. The old law required widows to file a separate claim, prove their husbands had black lung, and prove that was the cause of death.

“(Now) If your husband was awarded black lung benefits when he was alive, or even started a claim before he did, and it wasn’t awarded till after his death, they’re automatically eligible to those benefits for the rest of their lives, or until they remarry,” Smith said.

Yonts is fighting the clock on that rule. He’s won his black lung four years ago, but Consolidation Coal appealed the decision. He’s been in administrative law courts ever since. He’s hoping the law stays in place, and that his own claim will be settled while he’s alive, so his wife will continue to draw benefits after his death.

“If I die before it gets settled, it’s done,” he said.

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