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Demise of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund

Demise of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund

Black Lung is a disease that affects miners and, inevitably, results in their inability to breathe and a whole host of other disabilities. Without expensive treatments and transplants, Black Lung will likely eventually kill them. Dying is a problem, no matter how you look at it. But since most miners come from economically poor areas where mining is the only way to make a decent living, their deaths spell financial ruin for their surviving families. Historically, miners did not show signs of Black Lung until later in life, when they reached their 60s and 70s. And the federal government set up a Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to pay for their healthcare.

Unfortunately, miners are getting their diagnoses earlier and earlier, and it’s becoming much more common to see miners in their 40s and 50s already on oxygen and awaiting lung transplants. You would think that the increased demand for medical assistance would mean the Trust Fund is keeping pace, but the exact opposite is true. Why?

Despite President Trump’s proclaimed love of miners, he loves coal and the mining industry more, and he’s done a great deal to protect their interests. A tax on coal that helps to pay for the Trust Fund was cut sharply on January 1, 2019, and it was never restored. It will save coal operators hundreds of millions of dollars each year if it is not restored. And if it is not restored, budget officials estimate that the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund will no longer be able to fully cover benefit payments by the middle of 2020.

President Trump did not mention any restoration of the coal tax in his proposed budget. As the White House stated earlier this month: “President Trump and his administration have always supported the mining industry by prioritizing deregulation and less Washington interference.” And although Senator Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky is third in coal production in the United States, said last October that the tax rate “would be taken care of before we get into an expiration situation,” he has not renewed that pledge.

Both men and their election campaigns have collectively received almost $2 million from PACs and individuals associated with the coal industry.

Meanwhile, the Trust Fund provides payments and benefits to around 25,000 retired miners, many of whom used to work for companies that are now bankrupt. In the 1990s, a diagnosis of a severe form of black lung disease called pulmonary massive fibrosis occurred 31 times throughout the decade. In the last four years alone, one radiology clinic in Kentucky diagnosed 200 miners with pulmonary massive fibrosis.