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Chamber of Commerce (Again) Hopes to Scale Back Proposed Black Lung Benefits

With black lung disease on the rise in Appalachia, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) last year took action. As Democratic leaders were piecing together their sweeping health reform proposal, the nine-term Byrd attached language that would expand black lung benefits for coal miners and their families.

It hasn’t been well received by the business community.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is attacking the provision (again), Politico reported yesterday, and their strategy for killing it is clear: They want to put it in the same category as the special Medicaid deal carved out to win the support of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D) — a deal so unpopular that even Nelson doesn’t support it any longer.

“This had to be another one of those backrooms deals that was put into the larger bill to cobble votes together,” Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s top lobbyist, told Politico.

Never mind that that wasn’t the case. Byrd’s office has been quick to point out that the language was a part of the Senate HELP Committee bill that passed that panel last July.

“This is nothing new coming from the chamber,” Byrd’s office said today in an email. “They were opposed to this provision before it passed the Senate in December, as they were with the entire health care reform bill.”

Under current law, miners have to prove that they’ve got black lung disease before they become eligible for benefits through the Black Lung Disability Trust, a 32-year-old program funded largely with an excise tax on coal companies. The Byrd amendments would (1) extend benefits to spouses of miners who’ve died from black lung, and (2) install the legal presumption that sick miners with at least 15 years experience are suffering from black lung, thereby allowing them to tap the benefits unless insurers can prove that the illness is something else.

In a January statement, Byrd said that the changes are only fair to the workers of Appalachia.

These black lung benefits have been promised to coal miners who come down with totally disabling black lung disease. But too often the coal companies and the insurers have chosen to elude their responsibility to these ailing miners by out-lawyering and literally out-lasting them.

Who will stand up for these families who have lost a loved one or the ability to earn a living because of the years they spent toiling inside a coal mine?

Not, it would seem, the Chamber of Commerce.

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