The amendments to the bill, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, were made by pro-coal Senator Robert C Byrd, and include the restoration of benefits to miners’ widows that was removed during the administration of US President Ronald Reagan.
"[The] amendments … mean that some measure of fairness and compassion has been restored to the process of miners getting – and their widows keeping – black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this insidious disease,” union president Cecil Roberts said.
He noted that, according to the new language, if a miner could prove that he or she has been totally disabled by the lung disease and had worked in mining for 15 years, it is then presumed the condition resulted from his employment and the individual is eligible for benefits.
"The burden of proving otherwise is then on the company, which is where it should be,” Roberts said.
Senator Byrd said in a statement Monday that he has authored provisions to the bill to facilitate medical support for miners.
“These black lung benefits have been promised to coal miners who have acquired this totally disabling lung disease through no fault of their own,” he noted.
“And, unfortunately, there are thousands of miners and widows who are unfairly denied black lung benefits because of excessive adjudicatory hurdles.
“In far too many instances, miners and their widows are dying before they can claim the benefits they have earned and were promised under federal law.”
Byrd pointed out that the new language “will not cost one additional dime” unless miners’ employers take insufficient precautions to protect workers against black lung.
In addition to the 15-year threshold in the new regulations, widows who were collecting benefits, and now are not, will no longer have to reapply to retain them.
“This bill is very welcome news for those who have been treated unjustly over the years, and should provide some comfort knowing that their benefits will be forthcoming in the future,” Byrd said.
Roberts said he has seen reports from the industry and its allies that wage “attacks” on widows.
"These corporate mouthpieces neglect to point out that, to get these benefits, miners have to prove they have totally disabling lung disease,” he said.
“Nor will they say that companies have the ability to challenge whether or not that disease is indeed black lung or is caused by other factors.
"What Senator Byrd has done is take the language back to what it was before Reagan took an axe to widows' benefits.”
He reiterated that black lung is a fatal disease for which there is no cure.
Roberts said that the insurance companies providing benefits to coal companies relating to black lung are also upset about the amendments, but the bottom line was the impacted worker and his family.
"I guarantee you that these miners and their widows would give anything to not be collecting black lung benefits,” he said.
“These benefits are the bitter harvest of hard work in the mines, coupled with long-term, unnecessary exposure to respirable coal dust. They are earned, and must be paid.”
US President Obama signed the healthcare legislation into law on March 23.