At the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Clinic in Scarbro, W. Va., oxygen tubes dangle from the noses of three miners who are pedaling slowly on stationary bikes. All of these men have black lung — a disease caused by breathing in coal dust. Over time, the dust coats the lungs and causes them to harden. Hard lungs don’t easily expand and contract, and that makes it difficult to breath.
“You try to get air in them, and they don’t want to cooperate with you as they did before,” said retired miner James Bounds, speaking with great effort. Not every coal miner gets black lung, just as some smokers don’t get cancer. But for those who do, Bounds said, the disease is devastating.
“There’s no cure at all,” he said. “It keeps getting harder and harder until one day, I guess, you take your last breath and they won’t expand for you no more.”
Bounds is one of about 38,000 miners and widows currently receiving black lung benefits — compensation for the physical damage he sustained while doing his job. It took him four and a half years to get approved, despite the fact that his lungs are so bad he has to stop moving to talk.
But now the qualification process is supposed to move faster. The Affordable Care Act includes special provisions that make getting black lung benefits easier for coal miners. If the ACA is repealed, gaining these benefits could become much more difficult, effectively harming a group of people President Donald Trump has promised to protect.
Debbie Wills coordinates the black lung program for Valley Health primary care system. She said that prior to the ACA, it was almost impossible to qualify for the compensation benefits. Coal companies pay the benefits, and also pay into a federal trust fund that pays when coal companies can’t. Wills said the process was arduous for miners.
“Coal company lawyers would doctor shop around the country and find two, three, four, five, seven doctors to say, ‘Yes this miner is disabled, but it’s not because of black lung,’” she said.