Although instances of black lung disease are increasing, experts say it is still difficult for miners to receive disability benefits from coal companies.
Rick Hanna, district director of the federal Department of Labor, told Rockefeller about 85 percent of miners who apply for black lung benefits are initially turned away.
That's because, in order to receive benefits, workers have to be deemed totally disabled because of their respiratory problems. He said anyone denied benefits can reapply later, however, since the disease gets worse as patients age.
Dennis Robertson, a black lung benefits counselor at Bluestone Health Center, helps miners file black lung claims and find legal representation.
He said getting black lung benefits is a drawn-out process, with one group of doctors and lawyers insisting a worker has black lung, while other doctors and lawyers hired by the coal company dispute those claims.
"It's a constant battle," he said.
Rockefeller's bill also contains provisions that would allow attorneys representing miners in benefits disputes to collect payment throughout the process, instead of at the end.
He said coal companies can afford costly legal battles over benefits, while miners often cannot.
Companies also can hire highly experienced lawyers with long track records of lots of experience in black lung cases, he said. Miners, in general, are left with over-worked and underpaid lawyers who do not stand to make much money on the cases.
"The operators are contesting everything, at every level. Half of (the coal miners) don't even try to fight," Rockefeller said.
He said paying attorneys throughout the proceedings would provide more incentive for them to help miners fight for benefits.
Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust, but symptoms of the disease may not show up for years.
Normally, lungs try to rid themselves of foreign substances. That's why we cough. Coal dust is too fine to be coughed up, however, so the particles build up over time. This build-up of coal dust begins to scar the lung tissue, making the organs less and less effective at supplying oxygen to the blood.
Terry Fike's husband, Chester, was a scoop and continuous miner operator for 35 years. He died last December, just four months after receiving a double lung transplant.
Speaking at Rockefeller's black lung conference Thursday, Fike said her husband knew the dangers of breathing coal dust, but kept working to support his family.
"His heart was so weak, from his lungs," she said.
She said miners were told to wear dust masks, but Chester said the apparatus made it difficult for him to work.
Ruth Bishop, another conference panelist, became a widow in April.
She does not receive any of her husband's black lung benefits. Although he was twice granted benefits, they were rescinded before he died.
She said her husband, Ollie, was once a big, strong man with a twinkle in his eye. He was a coal miner, but also an old-time preacher who enjoyed working in his garden and visiting friends.
But as his disease worsened — the coal dust turning his lungs into hardened scar tissue — Ollie began to change.
He couldn't get out to see his friends, so he called them on the phone. He didn't have enough breath to hoot, holler and shout in the pulpit, but he taught Sunday school whenever he was able.
Eventually he could no longer work in the garden, so he began working crossword puzzles.
"Now I don't even have that. Black lung took that away from me," she said.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.har...@
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