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Leave federal trust fund in place to help black lung victims

With the incidence of black lung disease among coal miners again on the rise, now is not the time to put benefits that help miners with the disease in jeopardy.

But if Congress doesn’t act by the end of the year, which is fast approaching, the extent of those benefits could drop sharply.

The issue has to do with the excise tax paid by coal companies that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. That fund provides benefits and a medical expense card to black lung sufferers and dependents when a coal company appeals the miner’s black lung benefits award or when the company goes bankrupt, thus freeing it from paying black lung benefits. A federal report said the trust fund paid about $184 million in benefits to more than 25,000 coal miners and dependents in 2017, according to a report by The Associated Press.

However, without action by Congress and President Donald Trump, the excise tax that props up the fund will drop by more than half, thus reducing the amount of money available to helps those thousands of miners, many of whom worked or are working in mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. That would be unfortunate because, if anything, more miners may be afflicted with the incurable disease in the years ahead.

A study this year from researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that rates of the most severe form of the disease are on the rise, with the highest rate in central Appalachia. Further evidence of the need to support the trust fund came from a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health. It showed that cases of black lung are at a 25-year high in Appalachian coal mining states, with as many as one in five underground coal miners in the region having evidence of black lung, according to the AP.

That trend, as well as the threat of reduced funding, is why former Appalachian coal miners and their supporters were in the nation’s capital last week urging lawmakers to extend the excise tax at its current rate. One of those was Kenny Fleming, who worked in an eastern Kentucky mine and had to retire early from mining when he became ill with black lung. “The trust fund is a lifesaver,” he told the AP. “It’s helped so many people in so many ways, but now it’s in jeopardy.”

There was some evidence of action last week when House Republicans included a one-year extension for the excise tax into a tax bill. However, Fleming and others seeking an extension of the tax says a one-year provision is simply a “band-aid.”

A one-year extension is better than nothing, and at the least that should be enacted. But considering the rising incidence of black lung, the nation’s miners and their families would be better served by a much more substantial extension, so that they can have some assurance that the “life-saving” benefits will be around for a while.

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