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Passage of Byrd black lung amendments in health care bill a victory for miners, widows

March 23, 2010
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TRIANGLE, VA – United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement today:

“Amendments inserted by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va) dealing with black lung benefits into the health care bill passed by Congress means that some measure of fairness and compassion has been restored to the process of miners getting – and their widows keeping – black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this insidious disease.

“It’s important for everyone in the coalfields to realize what these amendments mean – and what they do not mean.

“They mean that if a miner can prove that he has a totally disabling lung disease and that he worked in the mines for 15 years, then the presumption is that he got this disease because of his employment and is entitled to black lung benefits.

“The burden of proving otherwise is then on the company, which is where it should be. As Sen. Byrd has pointed out, if a company did not take the proper and legally-required steps to protect its employees from too much exposure to respirable coal dust, then by all that is fair and right it has the responsibility to compensate that miner.

“I’ve seen press reports indicating that the coal industry and its corporate allies are upset about this. While that comes as no surprise, the arguments they use to attack Sen. Byrd and his work to restore fairness to this process are both surprising and misleading.

“These corporate mouthpieces neglect to point out that, to get these benefits, miners have to prove they have totally disabling lung disease. Nor will they say that companies have the ability to challenge whether or not that disease is indeed black lung or is caused by other factors.

“And their attacks on widows are even more disingenuous. Here are the facts: Prior to the Reagan administration, when a miner who was totally disabled from black lung and was receiving federal black lung benefits died, his widow was able to keep those benefits. Reagan changed that, and made widows prove, once again, that the death was caused by black lung.

“What Sen. Byrd has done is take the language back to what it was before Reagan took an axe to widows’ benefits. Let’s not forget that black lung is a fatal disease. There is no cure. If a miner was already receiving black lung benefits, he was going to die from black lung. If he should happen to die in another manner, that fact remains unchanged and his widow is still entitled to benefits.

“I’ve seen where those who provide insurance to coal companies with respect to black lung benefits are upset about these amendments and what they might mean to their business. Seems to me what they are saying is probably similar to what Toyota’s insurers are saying right about now – which is something to the effect that we don’t like this because we didn’t plan for it to happen.

“I guarantee you that these miners and their widows would give anything to not be collecting black lung benefits. These benefits are the bitter harvest of hard work in the mines, coupled with long-term, unnecessary exposure to respirable coal dust. They are earned, and must be paid.

“Sen. Byrd has done a tremendous service to thousands throughout the coalfields and their extended families. He deserves, once again, our sincere and profound thanks.”

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