Passage of the Cut Inflation Act, the Democrats’ big climate and health care bill, included a provision to help miners with black lung disease.
For years, Congress passed temporary extensions of a coal tax to fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The fund pays about $149 million a year in benefits and health care costs to miners with black lung disease whose former employers have gone bankrupt. Congress has periodically let the tax expire, including at the end of 2021, pushing the program even further into the red. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden last month, reinstated the tax and made it permanent.
Lynda Glagola of the Washington County nonprofit Lungs at Work, which provides medical and legal services to miners with black lung, says the fund pays about 2,000 miners and their families in Pennsylvania. Glagola said uncertainty about the future of black lung funding has increased the level of anxiety for families dependent on the benefits.
“We received a lot of phone calls from people wondering if their benefits were going to end or not. So it was absolutely stressful,” Glagola said. “For minors, when they get black lung benefits, they also get a black lung medical card that pays for all of their breathing treatment. Inhalers are very expensive and many of them are oxygen.
Glagola says black lung clinics across the country have been pushing for a permanent solution for the program for at least five years, and said its eventual adoption was a relief. The excise of $1.10 per ton of coal brought about $450 million in 2019 to the fund.
“It’s a huge impact,” Glagola said. “It’s a very real thing for people to know whether they can buy food or pay for their inhalers.”
Phil Smith, chief of staff of the United Mine Workers of America, said medical benefits include help with things not covered by Medicare and other forms of insurance. Benefits are approximately $700 to $1,200 per month for a black-lung miner, depending on the number of dependents.
Smith said the benefits are necessary because the disease prevents people with the disease from earning a living.
“Black lung is a progressive disease that slowly but surely chokes off parts of your lungs so you can’t breathe air into them and extract the oxygen from the air you need to survive,” Smith said. “Anything that can help you feel comfortable and make your life a little bit easier that isn’t covered by medical benefits – that’s what medical benefits take care of.”
About 17,000 minors and dependents across the country receive these benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office. About 7,000 others are receiving benefits from their former employers.
As coal decreases, less money for black lung perks
Even with a permanent tax extension, black lung benefits could face a long-term funding problem, Glagola said. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is already about $5 billion in debt. As more coal mines close, they will put less money into the fund.
But miners will continue to get sick long after they stop working. Some forms are on the rise in Appalachia, especially among young miners. About 1 in 5 miners in Appalachia show signs of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“It’s not going to decrease the amount of black lung for decades because black lung is a latent, progressive disease,” Glagola said. “A lot of miners will be fine by the time they retire, and 10, 20 years later disease can develop because the coal dust once in the lungs never comes out. So it just keeps working in there for a very, very long time.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy.