If President-elect Donald Trump fulfills his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, coal miners may lose disability benefits related to black lung.
The ACA included a provision meant to reverse the difficulty coal miners experienced when applying for compensation for black lung disease. Before 2009, “miners had to prove not only that they were disabled because of breathing problems, and that they had coal workers’ black lung, but that their disability was caused by their years in the mine,” writes a journalist at the online publication Stat.
The Affordable Care Act changed that. Under “Miscellaneous Provisions” is a small section sponsored by a self-proclaimed “child of the Appalachian coalfields,” the late West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd.
The Byrd Amendments shifted the burden of proof from the miners onto the mining companies. If a miner has spent 15 years or more underground and can prove respiratory disability, then it is presumed to be black lung related to mine work, unless the company can prove otherwise.
“Often the person whose job it is to do the convincing loses,” said Evan Smith, a lawyer for the nonprofit Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, who represents many miners affected by black lung. That change had a significant impact: In 2009, 19 percent of claims for black lung benefits were successful; in 2015, that percentage had jumped to 28.
The Byrd Amendments also had a huge effect on the families relying on that compensation. Before their enactment, when a miner died, his widow would keep getting compensation only if she could prove that her husband died because of black lung — a process that often took years, if it was successful.
Now, with a bit of paperwork, she keeps getting a portion of the money the family got when her husband was alive. The amount changes according to the number of family members dependent on the coal miner or widow. At the top end, a beneficiary with three or more dependents gets $1,289 a month, while a single beneficiary gets $644.50.
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