HHS Announces Cuts To Black Lung Clinics While Cases Surge


West Virginia’s eight black lung community clinics are facing big funding cuts that may affect the medical care and benefits received by some 8,500 coal miners suffering from the deadly disease.

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced earlier this month that federal funding to states will be capped at $900,000.

Last year, West Virginia received $1.5 million for its clinics. The cut represents about a 40 percent reduction in funding. West Virginia is the only state whose clinic budget exceeds the new cap.

Joyce Sherman, Director at the Tug River Health Association’s Black Lung Program told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that she was concerned that the drop in funding would force the clinic to cut staff and hours. The clinic provides miners with educational and medical services and helps them apply for black lung benefits to cover the cost of medication.

“The coal miners have spent their lives mining coal for this country, not just for West Virginia, but for this country,” Sherman told West Virginia Public Broadcasting, “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.”

Black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is caused by inhaling coal dust. It is a degenerative, irreversible and debilitating lung disease that effectively leads to gradual suffocation.

According to the Labor Department, 549,619 black lung claims were filed nationwide and $210 million were paid in benefits in 2012. In that year, the number of claims and payouts in West Virginia were second only to Pennsylvania.

Limits on the concentration of coal dust acceptable in mines were first set back in 1969 in the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act which also created the first compensation program for black lung benefits. The law was passed after 78 miners lost their lives in the massive 1968 mine explosion in Farmington, West Virginia and set the limit at one milligram per cubic meter. Since 1995, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been advocating for this standard to be drastically tightened.

Alarmingly, the prevalence of black lung, in decline for decades, has seen a recent dramatic resurgence. Since the late 1990s, both the rate and overall number of black lung cases have increased. According to NIOSH, more than 76,000 miners died from black lung between 1968 and 2010. Between 1995 and 2010, black lung killed 13,675 miners.

The uptick in cases has been blamed on: longer hours in the mines for workers, the mining of increasingly thinner coal seams — which requires cutting through more rock — and inadequate and poorly enforced coal dust control rules.

New coal dust regulations drafted by the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) back in 2010 have yet to be finalized. The Obama administration indicated last August that the new standards would be done by the end of that year, but the process continues to drag on with no end in sight.

The new rules are supposed to cut the legal limit of coal dust exposure in half to 1 milligram per cubic meter.

When asked why the rules were taking so long, Phil Smith, Director of Communications at United Mine Workers of America laughed dryly and said “good question.”

“This process has been going on for years and years and we are frustrated and confused by why it is taking so long,” he said. “Obviously there’s been huge opposition by industry and Obama’s already received a lot of criticism for over-regulating, so he may feel reluctant to move forward, but in the meantime we are left with no clue of what the final language will be.”

“Our primary concern is people’s health,” he added. “But we don’t want them to lose their jobs either.”