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Editorial: Attention to black lung disease must be ongoing


From the Times West Virginian of Fairmont:

Miners suffering from the cruel disease of black lung deserve ongoing attention from public officials.

Black lung disease is a debilitating, potentially fatal disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust and impacts thousands of individuals who have played a major role in the energy economy of the United States.

West Virginians facing this health battle did get some positive news in the past week.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will award $1,291,231 for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) for the Black Lung Coal Miner Clinics Program.

The support is bipartisan.

“Our coal miners have mined the coal that keeps our lights on, heats our homes and powers our businesses,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “Every miner who suffers from black lung disease should receive the best possible treatment and medical care.”

Manchin said he was pleased to see the funding, as the health and safety of miners has always been one of West Virginia’s top priorities.

“We owe so much to our miners who have worked hard to power this country,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. “That includes making sure those whose health has suffered in the process have the best medical resources available.”

She said the funding will help ensure the Black Lung Coal Miner Clinics Program can continue delivering critical services like screening, diagnosis, treatment and education that West Virginia miners rely on.

It’s not a given that adequate clinics are available for patients battling black lung disease.

A group of U.S. senators, including Manchin, has requested the highest level of funding — $10 million — in Fiscal Year 2018 to support black lung health clinics.

In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, the senators requested the funding bill include the full authorized amount to support the clinics, which provide health screenings, medical care and assistance in securing black lung benefits.

Joining Manchin in the letter are Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

They highlighted that the clinics — 28 located in 15 coal mining states — have faced a substantial increase in demands from coal miners for screening, diagnosis and pulmonary rehabilitation.

“Some clinics are so underfunded that they are operating with obsolete and inefficient diagnostic equipment, which is needlessly increasing miners’ radiation dose when they receive a chest X-ray,” the senators pointed out.

The funding for West Virginia is obviously a positive step.

Commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health and West Virginia State Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta said currently more than 7,900 West Virginians are being served by black lung clinics across the state.

“Having additional resources for the West Virginia Black Lung Program helps to ensure these West Virginians will continue to have access to the necessary and appropriate black lung treatment in order to have a better quality of life, which is critical from a public health perspective,” Gupta said.

Attention to black lung disease must be a continuing process as health care remains one of the country’s top political issues.

As Simon Haeder, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University pointed out last spring, “A little-known provision in the Affordable Care Act greatly facilitated access to black lung benefits for coal miners and their spouses. Repealing the ACA would roll back these benefits, although other legislation addressing the issue has been introduced. It would also affect eligibility for many miners with regard to Medicaid and the ACA marketplaces.”

The $10 million commitment of funds for the next fiscal year is not a huge request as part of the federal budget, but for those suffering from black lung it can be a major investment in better health.

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