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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Black Lung Fund Debt Grows By Millions Each Week

miners-at-capitol.jpg
June Leffler
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Former miners demonstrate at the capitol in Charleston, W.Va.

Retired miners in West Virginia are calling on Sen. Joe Manchin to protect the fund that pays for their health care.

Disabled miners with black lung receive cash and medical benefits through the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is about $6 billion in debt. Coal excise taxes pay into this fund, but miners say the coal companies aren’t paying enough. The tax was cut in half last year when Congress didn’t reinstate the full tax.

Despite the fund’s debt, miners haven’t lost out on their benefits. But they worry that could be a possibility in the near future.

“If it comes down to where I have to choose, and I lose my benefits, to pay for my medical bills or my bills at home, I’m going to have to pay for my bills at home,” said Jerry Coleman, a retired miner of 37 years and the president of the Kanawha County Black Lung Association. “I'm from West Virginia, and we’re counting on Joe to take care of West Virginia.”

Miners applauded Manchin when he introduced the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021. It would have extended the full tax for another 10 years. But the bill has gone nowhere, and miners say Manchin has lost interest in the cause.

“He's on TV, doing everything for everybody else. And when it comes to coal miners, he don't hear nothing said about us,” said Gary Hairston, National President of the Black Lung Association.

A spokesman for Manchin said otherwise.

“Sen. Manchin has led legislation to address the black lung excise tax expiration and will of course continue to work to shore up the black lung excise tax to address the needs of our brave miners,” said Manchin spokesman Sam Runyon.

Coleman and Hairston said they’ve arranged meetings with Manchin's office where the senator didn’t show up.

“He could be everywhere else. But for the people that’s been working for him, that voted him into office, he can't even talk to us,” Hairston said.

jerry-miner-at-capitol.jpg
June Leffler
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Jerry Coleman (right) is president of the Kanawha County Black Lung Association.

Miners and their advocates are turning their focus to Democrats’ proposed budget reconciliation, though there’s no sign that’s sure to pass.

“It’s gonna have to be included in a package, and right now this is the only package that has been proposed that would fit this bill,” said Courtney Rhoades, an organizer at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which advocates for miners with black lung.

Based on previous revenues for the black lung fund, the center estimates the fund is losing out on millions of dollars every week.

A federal report says the fund’s debt could reach $15 billion by 2050.

Democrats’ Build Back Better Act included a four-year extension to the higher excise tax. Manchin opposed the larger bill, though he supported the extension.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler

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