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2/03/2005

Kentucky Black Lung Laws need reform

Since the 1996 revisions to Kentucky’s Workers’ Compensation statutes, compensation benefits for coal miners afflicted with Black Lung Disease (Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis) have been virtually eliminated. Since 1996, the United Mine Workers of America and the Kentucky State AFL-CIO have repeatedly attempted to pass legislation that would provide a fair opportunity for mine workers with symptoms of Black Lung Disease to be eligible for compensation benefits.

In the nine-years since the changes to Workers’ Compensation fewer than twenty Kentucky coal miners have been found to have Black Lung Disease. It has often been said that Kentucky wiped out Black Lung Disease with the stroke of a pen. Ironically, while H.B.1 made it virtually impossible to qualify for Black Lung benefits; it established a funding system to pay anticipated claims funded solely by coal operators, called the Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis Fund (CWPF). Even more ironically, due to the miniscule number of coal miners found to be eligible for benefits since 1996, the CWPF has grown to over $20 million, with a surplus of over $18 million.

During the 2001 General Assembly, the United Mine Workers, with the support of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, introduced H.B. 132, designed to address the flaws in the system of diagnosing Black Lung by changing the manner in which x-rays were evaluated. H.B. 132 passed the House 64-32, but died in the Senate Economic Development, Tourism & Labor Committee.

During the 2002 General Assembly, another attempt was made to adjust the system to give mine workers a better chance for compensation with the introduction of H.B. 348. H.B. 348 was introduced with the best of intentions and passed the House 96-0 and the Senate 37-0, and was signed into law.

Black Lung was not an issue during the 2003 General Assembly. The number of mine workers eligible for compensation under H.B. 348 was monitored to determine if the number of eligible applicants increased. When 2004 began, it was clear from the actuarial reports from the Department of Workers Claims that H.B. 348 failed to meet expectations and another effort was needed to fairly compensation miners with Black Lung Disease.

During the 2004 General Assembly, H.B. 499 was introduced. It was designed to radically change the way Black Lung was diagnosed according to system set up by H.B. 348 by eliminating the so-called “consensus reading” procedure and replacing it with a streamlined approach that shortens the time it takes to diagnosis the disease and places more authority for making a determination with Administrative Law Judges. H.B. 499 passed the House 88-0 and died in the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

For the 2005 General Assembly, Rep. Robin Webb, a former coal miner herself, has introduced H.B. 106, which contains the identical provisions to H.B. 499. The history of efforts to reform the Black Lung Compensation program shows that it can take more than one try to win passage of changes. Consider the unanimous vote in the House for H.B. 499 during the 2004 Session as proof.

The current strategy for H.B. 106 is to get it voted out of the House Labor and Industry Committee and to the House floor for a vote as early as possible, achieve the same widespread support in the House as H.B. 499, and then move it to the Senate and request a hearing so that the bill doesn’t fall prey to the “it arrived too late” syndrome.

Meetings regarding H.B. 106 have been conducted with House Leadership and the bill is on track to be heard. It is co-sponsored by members of both parties. If you have any questions of comments about this legislation, contact Steve Earle or Bill Londrigan



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