Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 29, 2013

The Byrd Amendments: Welcomed help for coal miners

— — Changes to federal black lung rules announced earlier this week should make it easier for area coal miners and their families to obtain benefits. And the new rules will specifically help those miners who are struggling with the chronic illness known as black lung.

The final rules announced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Program implements two amendments to the 2010 Black Lung Benefits Act.

The changes, called the Byrd Amendments, reinstate two provisions that were eliminated in 1981, the Associated Press reported. They were originally sponsored by the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-.W.Va.

One amendment makes an automatic assumption for those who worked in coal mines for at least 15 years and suffered a totally disabling respiratory impairment. The other amendment automatically transfers black lung benefits from the late recipient to eligible survivors.

The rule also eliminates several unnecessary or obsolete provisions in the act. Claims filed on or after March 23, 2010, and claims dating to Jan. 1, 2005, are affected by the rule.

“Many miners disabled by black lung disease and their survivors will receive critical benefits as a result of the Byrd Amendments,” Gary A. Steinberg, acting director of OWCP, said in a news release. “The final rules implementing these vital provisions assist the coal-mining community by clarifying how the amendments operate.”

The new rules are welcomed, and should help coal miners and their families across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

In recent years, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has taken the lead in fighting for legislation aimed at helping coal miners and their families receive their benefits. Just last month Rockefeller introduced the Black Lung Health Improvements Act of 2013. The legislation attempts to accomplish several goals, including increasing miners’ access to their health records in the black lung claims process; make it easier for miners to access legal representation when operators refuse to provide benefits; create new grants for research into the disease; make it easier for long-time miners and their families to collect black lung benefits; and requires the Government Accountability Office to study ways to make the application process for black lung disability claims easier for miners to navigate, among other provisions.

During the fiscal year 2012, 549,619 black lung claims were filed nationwide and payouts topped $210 million, according to the Labor Department’s website. Still many miners in our region suffering from black lung often find themselves dealing with unnecessary red tape, and are often forced to fight long battles with Washington for their hard-earned benefits.

It is our hope that the federal changes announced Wednesday — along with the ongoing efforts by Rockefeller — can expedite this process.

Coal miners who have labored for years deep underground in the mountains of southern West Virginia and neighboring Southwest Virginia should not be forced to fight for federal benefits that they are rightfully entitled to.

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