Federal Cuts to Black Lung Programs Expected to Hit W.Va. Hardest

Apr 9, 2014

Credit National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

A McDowell County clinic is worried that federal cuts could compromise care for coal miners and their families.  The concern comes after grants for the Black Lung Clinic Programs were capped at $900,000. Since West Virginia was the only state to receive more than that annually, it’s expected to hit home the hardest.   

It’s not yet clear how much money individual clinics will lose as a result of the federal cuts but for Joyce Sherman she worries that any amount of money lost could mean less service for the miners.

“It may even take some of our hours away but we really don’t know what we’re going to be facing just yet and that’s the scary part,” Tug River Health Associates Black Lung Program Director Joyce Sherman said. Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is a deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust that causes a person’s lungs to fail.

Sherman said funding for the program helps pay for equipment maintenance, staffing and more. She says the program helps miners with everything from medical examinations to education and even filling out black lung benefits applications.

Earlier this week, Tommy Curry, a benefits counselor at Tug River, met with representatives from the United States Department of Labor met at a Princeton hotel to provide help to miners looking to fill out applications for black lung benefits.

The process of applying and even re-applying for benefits can take years. It’s a multi step process that begins with filling out paperwork, trips to qualified doctors, but that’s just the beginning.

Miners undergo what’s called pulmonary function testing to measure their ability to get air in and out of the lungs. Only miners with 60% or less of a person's vital capacity are eligible for benefits.

Black lung is a progressive disease, so if a miner is diagnosed, the disease will eventually leave them breathless, if they live that long.

“One year they could be fine but next year a year later they could be at a point that they can’t breathe at all,” said Teresa Blackwell, a respiratory therapist at Tug River.

Blackwell said her father was diagnosed with black lung, but it wasn’t bad enough to get benefits.

“Eventually he will make it but I kind of hope he doesn’t make it because … I just want I want him to stay healthy,” Blackwell said.

After the medical records show sufficient pulmonary dysfunction, the Department of Labor has to approve the application. Even so, the coal or insurance companies can fight the claims.

Tommy Curry says he helps with court battles as well.

“If we find out about it that’s when we start fixing them with a lawyer,” he said. “We try to put them with somebody that we know that knows how to fight a black lung case.”

Credit Department of Labor

A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed even more challenges for miners in the courtroom in which attorney’s use ‘cut throat methods’ to fight the claims.

“A coal company can get the best doctors in the world,” Curry said. “A coal miner he can only get so much.”

In February, about a month before the cuts were announced, the department of labor revealed changes meant to help miners obtain benefits easier and potentially faster as was reported by CPI. The report says that the changes will provide “some miners with an additional medical report” as well as help for government attorneys that represent the miners. 

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regarding the expected cuts to clinics. Members of the West Virginia congressional delegation have also expressed concerns through news releases.

If the cuts aren’t reversed, the state will likely lose about $500,000 across eight clinics. Joyce Sherman at Tug River Health Associates fears that her clinic would be forced to cut staff and services, possibly further delaying treatment and care for miners with black lung and their families.

“It will definitely be a problem for the coal miners,” Sherman said. “When they come to see you, you want to be present. But if you don’t have the funds and the funds are cut then that means that you’re going to have to find ways to cut back that you can still provide services but it won’t be to the extent that the miner needs.”

As a coal miner’s daughter who watched her father’s health deteriorate because of black lung, Sherman said she’s disappointed.

“The coal miners have spent their life mining coal for this country not just for West Virginia but for this country,” Sherman said, “and it is our duty to provide services for them and we need funding. These people have paid taxes they’ve worked hard now they can’t breathe and you know it is our duty to help them with their medical problems and provide services for them.”

In 2012 a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that black lung cases were on the rise in West Virginia and across Appalachia.

Despite the cuts, Tommy Curry is encouraging coal miners to apply for benefits, even if they were turned down before. Again, black lung is a progressive disease that only gets worse with time so consistent therapy and treatment can be critical for a better quality of life.