Could black lung benefits be in jeopardy?

Published: Dec. 20, 2016 at 6:54 PM EST
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Last week, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a

indicating a spike in black lung cases in Eastern Kentucky. A big reason for the trend could be with the decline in the coal industry, many miners are now getting tested for black lung in order to get compensation.

While the health concern lingers, there is now a new worry. Some former coal miners fear their black lung benefits could go away under President-elect Donald Trump's administration. Trump was vocal during his campaign about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare").

Tucked away in the Affordable Care Act are provisions, which make it easier for those with black lung to get benefits.

The provisions say someone who spent at least 15 years in the mines and can prove they have breathing issues, it is presumed to be black lung unless a company can prove otherwise. It shifts the burden of proof from the coal miners to the mining companies.

Now, some people who even voted for Trump worry repealing "Obamacare" wholesale would hurt them.

"If he's as smart as he says he is, he is going to say hey, I want to boost the economy so if I cut these benefits off, that's going to be a downturn," said Richard Yonts, a former coal miner.

The provisions also benefit widows of coal miners. Right now, they can get a portion of the money their husband received while he was alive.

Linda Adams said when her husband died, he had one wish.

"He said no matter what you do, do not give up on black lung," Adams said. "There is other people out there who deserve it. He said I know I have black lung, and I'm going to die from black lung."

Since the election, Trump softened his stance on "Obamacare" saying he would keep some parts. However, that does not stop some people from worrying.

Members of the Southeastern Kentucky Black Lung Association in Letcher County are signing a petition asking the White House to not repeal all parts of the Affordable Care Act.

The office of Rep. Hal Rogers (R- Kentucky) released a statement saying while the priority of Congress will be to repeal and replace "Obamacare," Rogers advocates for a piecemeal approach. The statement says Rogers believes "some portions of the law are worthy of continuation, such as critical protections for coal miners."

For some, the damage has already been done. One miner said knowing what he knows now, he is not sure he would choose to work in the mines.

"There is something about coal mining that gets in your blood," Yonts said. "My only statement was if I could get my breathing back, they could have their money back. Of course, there is no way to reverse that. The damage has been done."