In the midst of Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, one Republican congressman from coal country is launching a fight to protect portions of the law that benefit miners who work in hazardous conditions.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., reintroduced a resolution Thursday saying Congress must reaffirm its efforts to preserve benefits for miners who become ill due to working in the mines. Coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung, is caused largely by inhaling coal dust while working in mines.
Congressional Republicans launched their efforts to dismantle "Obamacare" last week, saying President-elect Trump will repeal the ACA through legislation and a series of executive orders. Republicans said they will replace the federal health care law with a conservative alternative, but have failed to give any details on their plans.
A National Public Radio investigation late last year revealed coal miners across Appalachia are suffering from a serious form of the deadly disease. In 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, more than 962 cases were reported over the last decade, striking mostly younger miners. The true number, NPR reported, is likely higher, as some clinics had incomplete data and some refused to turn over records.
"As Congress works on health care reform, we must remember the miners who toil above ground and underground to power our nation," Jenkins said.
He said any replacement of the ACA must preserve the Byrd Amendment, he said, which is aimed at assisting miners and their families.
The Byrd Amendment, named after late West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd, has two components. The first, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, mandates a presumption of total disability or death caused by pneumoconiosis for coal miners who worked for at least 15 years in mining and who suffer from a totally disabling respiratory impairment. The second component provides for surviving miners' families to receive benefits.
The two-page legislation is cosponsored by Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., David McKinley and Alex Mooney, both R-W.Va., and Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
Coal was a central part of the platform for Trump's campaign, which paid off with his success in the country's major coal-mining areas, including crucial wins in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Trump repeatedly promised a revival of the industry and described the demographic of miners as "neglected" by the Obama administration.
Although the repeal of the Affordable Care Act was also an integral promise the Trump campaign, throwing it out completely could mean compromising the best interest of a large proportion of his supporters.
Phill Smith of the United Mine Workers of America said the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the Byrd Amendment would be devastating.
"It means the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a month in benefits to help people who are literally choking to death," Smith said.
Smith said for roughly the last six years, there have been several hundred workers or their widows who received benefits through Byrd Amendments and without them, many would be unable to afford the care they need.
"We're seeing a rise in black lung now, so it is reasonable to assume that we will be seeing more of these people who should be getting these benefits and are eligible for them, but otherwise would have very limited options," Smith said.
Tyson writes for the Beckley, West Virginia Register-Herald.