MULLENS — They came for hope — some with questions, some with myriad paperwork to claim federal black lung benefits, some pulling oxygen machines to help them breathe due to the debilitating lung disease.
The miners attending a meeting Friday in the Mullens Opportunity Center wanted to know that benefits they’d been promised would be delivered.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., met with Wyoming County coal miners to discuss the changes in the laws regarding black lung benefits and the efforts under way now in Congress to overturn recent gains in the legislation.
Also talking with miners were Dennis Robertson, of the Bluestone Health Association; Joe Massey, president of the Fayette County and the National Black Lung Association; and Nancy Massey, who serves as secretary of the national organization; along with Sam Petsonk and Brenda Ellis, of the Wyoming County Black Lung Association.
Nancy Massey said her husband, Joe, deals with black lung health issues and uses oxygen.
“It’s no fun, when you’re trying to sleep,” she said, and you can hear your husband trying to breathe.
“And it doesn’t get any better. It just gets worse,” she said.
“The loss of a loved one to this debilitating disease is hard enough without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops,” Rahall told the group.
For several years, Rahall said he had introduced legislation to overturn Reagan-era changes to the black lung program. Those changes resulted in longtime and sick coal miners having to overcome new legal hurdles to claim their benefits, usually fighting against an array of lawyers. Rahall’s legislation, which U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd sponsored as an amendment to the new health care law in 2010, partially repealed those Reagan-era changes, and also made it easier for miners’ widows to claim benefits.
Byrd, in the final days of his life and in failing health himself, took the Senate floor to have language included in the Affordable Health Care Act that deemed any coal miner who has worked for 15 years in mining has the presumption of black lung disease, Rahall said.
Since that 2010 change in legislation, about 1,700 claims have been processed with more than 1,000 claims for surviving widows.
“There is a callous — and, let’s be honest, partisan — effort under way to undercut the programs designed to help treat the crippling effects of this terrible illness,” Rahall said.
“It may be that (the process) is so long and drawn out because, maybe, the coal miners won’t be with us to collect the benefits,” Rahall told the group.
“The too often callous treatment extended toward miners and surviving family members because of these burdensome requirements is being remedied, and I am so proud to have worked closely with Sen. Byrd to have helped make that happen,” Rahall said.
On average, Rahall said, it takes 42 months to process a claim for black lung benefits due to the backlog. He’s made suggestions that he believes will reduce that time to 34 months.
Dewey Houck, director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, along with Robertson and other panel members lauded Rahall’s continuing efforts to support coal miners.
“I want to thank our coal miners for laboring beneath the bowels of the earth to extract our energy ... ,” Rahall said. “Unfortunately, their efforts are taken for granted in other places — especially the cities, where they just flip the lights on and don’t think about the sacrifices of our miners.”
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