Black Lung Language in Health Care Bill Worries Business Community

CHARLESTON — The health care reform bill the U.S. Senate passed late last year could greatly expand the number of families eligible to receive benefits for black lung, and that has one leading insurer rethinking providing coverage for the illness.

The Senate passed the Affordable Health Care Choices Act in December with amendments from Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., aimed at tearing down some of the barriers coal miners allegedly face when trying to prove they have black lung. Among the provisions is one that would allow spouses of miners who died of the disease to receive benefits.

BrickStreet Insurance, which provides black lung coverage to mining companies, could take an $80 million to $160 million hit on its reserves if the legislation goes into effect, according to CEO Greg Burton. That could at the very least drive up premiums for black lung coverage or perhaps cause the company to rethink covering the illness altogether.

“We definitely have to look at whether or not we can continue to cover black lung for coal (mining) in general, and that would have an effect on overall employment,” Burton said.

Black lung is a disease that has plagued coal miners since the beginning of the industry. Once believed to be a medical condition of the past, black lung rates have been on the rise among coal miners in West Virginia and the surrounding region in recent years.

Researchers have yet to pinpoint a specific reason for the increase, but they believe it’s likely due to mining techniques that expose miners to large amounts of coal dust and rock dust. They say that one troubling sign is that black lung is appearing in younger people than it has in the past.

Byrd’s amendments would make it easier for miners and their families to receive compensation for black lung. Spouses of miners could receive benefits if the miners died of the disease. The bill would create a 15-year presumption in which an insurer or mining company must prove a claimant doesn’t have black lung instead of the other way around. The changes also would be retroactive back to 2005.

In an e-mail, staffers for Byrd’s office wrote the senator pushed for the amendments because there was no guarantee that a separate bill addressing the issue would be heard given time constraints in the Senate.

“The amendments are necessary because miners were exposed to work environments where dust controls and health standards were not enforced or proved insufficient,” they wrote. “Too often, sick and dying miners are unable to collect benefits they deserve because they don’t have the means or time to overcome legal hurdles. This bill helps to remove some of those hurdles.”

Some of those hurdles were spelled out in a U.S. Government Accountability Office reported completed last year at the request of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The agency found that miners seeking benefits under a federal program faced financial barriers to hiring legal representation and that the state of science surrounding black lung made proving their cases difficult.

Rockefeller, who was in Princeton Jan. 15 to talk to miners about black lung, said he supported the amendments, although he would have likely brought them forward in a separate bill. He dismissed BrickStreet’s concerns, saying he is a little skeptical of insurance industry claims given some of his dealings with it in the past.

“They are a private, for-profit company, and they want to pay as little as they possibly can,” he said.

Rockefeller didn’t see the changes biasing the system one way or the other. Instead, it made the system more efficient and made sure families facing the disease don’t give up on seeking benefits because of financial and other hurdles, he said.

The provision of the bill that most worries critics of the legislation is the one making claims retroactive to 2005. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is asking its members to oppose the amendment, saying it would cost West Virginia hundreds of millions of dollars in workers’ compensation claims. Chamber President Steve Roberts has publicly called the amendment a “job killer.”

However, the fate of the entire Senate health care bill was uncertain as The State Journal went to press.

The election of Republican candidate Scott Brown in Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate gave the GOP the votes it needs to filibuster any bill coming before the chamber. While Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives simply could pass the Senate bill as is to send it to the president’s desk, news reports indicated they were unwilling to do that.


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