Under federal law, coal miners who have black lung disease are entitled to disability payments funded by the industry.
Miners and widows tell horror stories about the difficult process of obtaining benefits. Coal companies can challenge their applications for benefits, and the process is complicated and time consuming.
As part of the federal health-care reform law, Byrd succeeded in reversing Reagan-era changes to the black lung benefits program that had made it harder for miners or their widows to obtain those benefits.
Under Byrd's amendment, the law reverts to assuming that miners with at least 15 years' experience who have a disabling respiratory condition have black lung disease. Companies can overcome that assumption by proving that the miner didn't really work 15 years in the mines or that the disability was caused by something else, such as smoking.
Byrd's amendment also keeps widows whose husbands were receiving benefits at the time of their deaths from having to re-apply after their husbands die. Both changes apply only to cases where benefit applications were filed after Jan. 1, 2005, and were pending on or after last month's passage of the health-care reform law.
Last week, former Kentucky newspaper reporter Bill Bishop wrote about Byrd's black lung amendment on The Daily Yonder, a blog dedicated to covering issues facing rural communities.
Citing data from the Black Lung Clinic at Washington and Lee University's School of Law, Bishop said that more than 700 disabled coal miners or their surviving spouses are already receiving benefits under Byrd's language. Bishop noted a report in Foreign Policy magazine that said the outcome of this year's presidential election "could come down to one thing: coal."
"That doesn't mean coal miners, however," Bishop wrote. "Although both President Obama and Mitt Romney have pledged their support for coal, the issue of black lung -- either its causes or compensation for those who contract the disease -- has not arisen in this campaign."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.