By | April 24, 2014

Coal minerBlack lung disease has long been the scourge of coal miners. After years of breathing coal dust, a miner’s lungs may become scarred and stiff and emphysematous. The miner feels smothered, even when at rest. The disease, formally known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is progressive and incurable and downright torturous.

Yesterday the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) took its first action in more than 40 years to reduce the level of exposure to respirable coal dust. Contrary to popular belief, mines do not have to be as dusty as they have been; with proper ventilation and dust suppressants, dust levels can be lowered significantly. MSHA’s new regulations reduce the permissible level of dust, eliminate averaging the measurement of samples of mine air, mandate that air samples be taken when a mine is operating at no less than 80 percent of production, and require continuous personal dust monitors so miners can measure the air quality of their work environment. The new changes will be phased in over two years. Coal miners’ advocates are hailing the long-awaited changes.

MSHA’s new regulations come hot on the heels of other big black lung news. Last week Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for his three-part series, Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine. The series uncovered doctors and lawyers working together to defeat disabled coal miners’ claims for benefits under the federal Black Lung Benefits Program and ultimately caused Johns Hopkins to suspend its black lung program and led to congressional calls for an investigation.

The federal Black Lung Benefits Program dates back to 1969 and was designed to compensate coal miners who became disabled by black lung disease. It remains an important source of income for disabled miners, their families, and their survivors. The Black Lung Benefits Act and its various amendments created a labyrinthine system of claims, appeals, remands, and competing medical evidence. For many years, the approval rate of claims for federal black lung benefits languished in the single digits.

But a little-heralded change in the law brought about by the Affordable Care Act has dramatically improved the approval rates of claims for black lung benefits. Stephen A. Sanders, the director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and an expert on black lung benefits, explains the complicated black lung program and its recent changes in his Clearinghouse Review article, Black Lung Benefits for Disabled Coal Miners and Their Families. As Sanders explains, the Affordable Care Act amended the Black Lung Benefits Act in two major ways:

  1. It created an automatic entitlement to benefits for a survivor of a miner who had been awarded benefits at the time of his death; before this change, survivors had to refile claims and essentially re-prove the medical case for black lung benefits; and
  2. Disabled miners who worked at least 15 years in underground coal mining now benefit from a rebuttable presumption that their disability is due to black lung disease; if the miner is dead, the survivor has a rebuttable presumption that the disabled miner’s death was due to black lung.

The changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act have eased what used to be a decades-long administrative slog for disabled miners trying to receive their black lung benefits. But yesterday’s final rule by MSHA to reduce coal dust exposure in the mines may help more miners avoid ever having to suffer the excruciating symptoms of black lung disease in the first place.

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