Affordable Care Act may bolster miners' benefits

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- "Obamacare" to detractors -- will result in expanded benefits from black lung sufferers if it is approved by the Supreme Court. This has huge implications for those who suffer from respiratory conditions related to coal mines, particularly those receiving SSDI benefits.

The law would reinstate two rules that were eliminated in 1981. After 1982, workers' relatives were required to prove that black lung conditions caused former coal miners' illnesses.

If passed, the Affordable Care Act will make an automatic assumption that the illness was work-related if the employee worked in the coal mines for at least 15 years and developed a totally disabling lung ailment. Additionally, the new rule would transfer black lung benefits to eligible survivors, a practice that was also outlawed in 1981.

Pennsylvania has had the highest rates of black lung claims since 1973, with nearly 140,000 complaints filed and more than $55 million in restitution payments during 2011. Nationwide, more than 660,000 claims have been filed in that same time period, with more than $200 million distributed to sufferers during 2011.

Black lung was thought to be non-existent after the passage of new safety precautions, but younger miners have been showing signs of the condition despite these measures. Autopsies of miners killed in recent disasters show that about half of them were afflicted with the respiratory disease.

If the rules are approved, they would be retroactive to claims filed on, or after, March 23, 2010. Claims dating back to Jan. 1, 2005 would also be considered. Public comment on the measures will be accepted through May 29 of this year.

Workers' compensation experts say that the new provisions will provide critical benefits to supplement miners' existing SSDI payments. Many of the workers have had their lives essentially destroyed by the insidious disease, they say, and the financial restitution will help them, and their families, live more comfortably.

Source: Associated Press, "Rule changes, bill could help black lung victims," April 3, 2012

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