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Official: Health reform won't drive up costs of black-lung benefits

Changes to black-lung benefits in the health insurance reform bill that Congress passed last week will not greatly increase the cost of covering disability claimants, a federal official said Thursday.

The cost to the federal black-lung disability trust fund will not be the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars some business organizations who oppose the changes predict, said James DeMarce of the Labor Department, which administers the fund

The changes, amendments to the health care bill added by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, reverse 1981 legislation that put the burden on a miner of 15 years or more to prove that his or her disability is caused by black lung, a collection of respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling dust. The new changes also automatically transfer benefits to spouses and other dependents after a miner dies — accepting the presumption that black lung contributed to the death of a miner of 15 years or more.

That is a big help to some beneficiaries of the trust fund, said Steve Sanders, who represents miners and their dependents at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg.

"It's a somewhat limited rebuttal," Sanders said.

DeMarce said 311 spouses' benefits claims fall into the category affected by the new changes, which took effect March 23. Most miners who fall in the total-disability, 15 years' experience category are granted claims anyway, DeMarce said. Only a few dozen haven't been able to prove their cases and will be affected by the change to the law, he said. Spouses' benefits are $626 a month, and the usual duration of the benefits is 10 years, DeMarce said.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the "automatic presumption" that a disabled 15-year miner has black lung is unfair without a clear medical diagnosis.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has heard from insurance companies and the National Mining Association, which predicts that new benefits, retroactive to 2005, will cost $100 million or more, said chamber president Steve Roberts.

"We have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to expansion of benefits, particularly when an expansion of benefits says it will ignore medical science," Roberts said.

The law doesn't seem to ignore medical conditions. A claimant has to have a "totally disabling respiratory impairment," according to Labor Department documents.

The question is whether that respiratory impairment is caused by black lung or something else, such as smoking, Bissett said.