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Health care bill brings black lung changes

The historic health-care reform bill signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday includes provisions that will make the process of obtaining black lung benefits easier for disabled miners who qualify.

Amendments inserted into the bill last year by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia reverse major changes to the black lung eligibility process previously made in 1981 during the Ronald Reagan administration.

A press release from Sen. Byrd’s office said the senator inserted these two provisions in the legislation:

In cases where a miner has accumulated 15 or more years of coal mine employment, and there is medical evidence of totally disabling lung disease, there will be a legal presumption that the miner and his widow would be entitled to benefits — unless there is evidence proving that the miner’s disease was not black lung, or that the disease did not result from coal mine employment; and

Widows of coal miners who spouses suff ered from totally-disabling black lung disease and were collecting benefits, would no longer have to reapply to retain their modest benefits.

Ken Ward, a reporter specializing in the coal industry for the Charles-
ton Gazette,
wrote on his blog “Coal Tattoo” that since the changes were made by the Reagan administration “miners or their widows seeking benefits have (had) to navigate a very complicated system that often denies them (benefits) simply because of the many adjudicatory hurdles.”

Ward points out that the changes signed into law by President Obama still require “miners with 15 years’ experience must still show medical evidence of the disease, and if there is evidence the illness wasn’t caused from working in the mines, they would not be eligible.”

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said Byrd’s amendments are a victory for miners and their widows.

Roberts said the amendments mean that some measure of fairness and compassion has been restored to the process of miners getting — and their widows keeping — black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this insidious disease.”

“It’s important for everyone in the coalfi elds to realize what these amendments mean — and what they do not mean,” continued Roberts. “They mean that if a miner can prove that he has a totally disabling lung disease and that he worked in the mines for 15 years, then the presumption is that he got this disease because of his employment and is entitled to black lung benefits.

“The burden of proving otherwise is then on the company, which is where it should be. As Sen. Byrd has pointed out, if a company did not take the proper and legallyrequired steps to protect its employees from too much exposure to respirable coal dust, then by all that is fair and right it has the responsibility to compensate that miner.”

Responding to opposition to the Byrd amendments by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, coal company insurers and others, Roberts said, “These corporate mouthpieces neglect to point out that, to get these benefi ts, miners have to prove they have totally disabling lung disease. Nor will they say that companies have the ability to challenge whether or not that disease is indeed black lung or is caused by other factors.”

“And their attacks on widows are even more disingenuous,” continued Roberts. “Here are the facts: Prior to the Reagan administration, when a miner who was totally disabled from black lung and was receiving federal black lung benefits died, his widow was able to keep those benefits. Reagan changed that, and made widows prove, once again, that the death was caused by black lung. What Sen. Byrd has done is take the language back to what it was before Reagan took an axe to widows’ benefits. Let’s not forget that black lung is a fatal disease. There is no cure. If a miner was already receiving black lung benefits, he was going to die from black lung. If he should happen to die in another manner, that fact remains unchanged and his widow is still entitled to benefits.”

“These black lung benefits have been promised to coal miners who have acquired this totally disabling lung disease through no fault of their own,” Sen. Byrd said in his press release. “And, unfortunately, there are thousands of miners and widows who are unfairly denied black lung benefits because of excessive adjudicatory hurdles. 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.”

Claiming a historic triumph that could define his presidency, a jubilant President Obama signed the massive, nearly $1 trillion health care overhaul on Tuesday that will for the first time cement insurance coverage as the right of every U.S. citizen and begin to reshape the way virtually all Americans receive and pay for treatment.

Aside from the huge, real-life changes in store for many Americans, the White House hopes the victory will revitalize an Obama presidency that has been all but preoccupied with health care for his first year and two months in office.

The reshaping of one-sixth of the U.S. economy, to be phased in over several years, ranks among the biggest changes ever devised by Washington. That was a main complaint from Republicans who characterize the measure as a costly, wrongheaded government power grab. Obama and the Democrats portray it as literally a lifesaver for countless Americans.

The core of the massive law is the extension of health care coverage to 32 million who now lack it, a goal to be achieved through a complex cocktail of new mandates for individuals and employers, subsidies for people who can’t afford to buy coverage on their own, consumer-friendly rules clamped on insurers, tax breaks, and marketplaces to shop for health plans.

The law’s most far-reaching changes don’t kick until 2014, including a requirement that most Americans carry health insurance — whether through an employer, a government program or their own purchase — or pay a fine. To make that a reality, tax credits to help cover the cost of premiums will start flowing to middle-class families and Medicaid will be expanded to cover more low-income people.

Among the new rules on insurance companies are banning lifetime dollar limits on policies, coverage denials for pre-existing conditions, and policy cancellations when someone gets sick. Insurers also will have to allow parents to keep children on their plans up to age 26.

The changes are to be paid for with cuts in projected government payment increases to hospitals, insurance companies and others under Medicare and other health programs, an increase in the Medicare payroll tax for some, fees on insurance companies, drug makers and medical device manufacturers, a new excise tax on high-value insurance plans and a tax on indoor tanning services.

For seniors, the plan will gradually close the “doughnut hole” prescription coverage gap and improve preventive care. But it also will cut funding for popular private insurance plans off ered through Medicare Advantage. About one-quarter of seniors have signed up for such plans, which generally off er lower out-of-pocket costs.

Compiled from staff , AP reports.

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