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EDITORIAL: Highest possible level of funding for black lung clinics should be approved

Times West Virginian editorial

The nation’s coal miners suffering from black lung disease need the best care possible.

An effort is underway to help ensure that goal is met — that those suffering from the disease get the medical care they need and the essential benefits they have earned.

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.

A group of U.S. senators, including Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., 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.

The letter said there are 28 black lung clinics located in 15 coal mining states, including West Virginia, which, with very small grants provided by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy within the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), serve as a lifeline for disabled miners who have spent a lifetime working in coal mines.

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

The senators wrote, “Due to the rise in the number of miners diagnosed with black lung disease, as documented by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, we are asking you to consider providing $10 million for the black lung program.”

They continued, “We are grateful for the slight increase in the Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations bill; however, we also note that funding to these black lung clinics has been historically frozen and is well below its authorized level of $10 million in the Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of 1977.”

They highlighted that the clinics have faced a substantial increase in demands from coal miners for screening, diagnosis and pulmonary rehabilitation.

These needs are not now being adequately met.

“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.

“While we are aware that you are carefully reviewing budget priorities, we respectfully ask that coal miners — many of who reside in rural communities — receive the medical services and support that they need and deserve,” the letter concluded.

A relatively small commitment of funds will go a long way toward solving the problem.

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