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Miners went to McConnell hoping for his endorsement. They left with mixed feelings.

As black lung surges across Eastern Kentucky, clinic expands to meet demand.

New Beginnings Pulmonary Rehab plans to double its number of clinics by early 2020 as black lung disease increases in prevalence among Central Appalachian coal miners.
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New Beginnings Pulmonary Rehab plans to double its number of clinics by early 2020 as black lung disease increases in prevalence among Central Appalachian coal miners.

A group of former Kentucky coal miners, who suffer from the deadly and incurable black lung disease, had mixed feelings about a brief meeting Tuesday with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, his staff and the miners reportedly discussed funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a federal program at risk at becoming underfunded that pays a monthly stipend and covers medical expenses for black lung victims and their widows.

About 12,000 former miners nationwide rely on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to cover costs and make ends meet, but a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that the fund is $4.3 billion in debt, and a tax on coal which funded the trust fund was cut in half in January. Many advocates for the fund worry it may soon become insolvent.

There is no cure for black lung disease, which is caused by the inhalation of dust particles in mines leading to severe lung damage. Cases of the deadly disease have surged in recent years in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia.

The Kentucky Republican, who the miners and their advocates see as key to passing any sort of Congressional assistance, told the group of miners in a brief statement “that they were going to be taken care of,” said Kenny Fleming, a former Pike County miner who suffers from black lung.

“We just have to take him at his word and then we also have to keep him at his word, which I think that’s what we’re after,” Fleming said. “Hopefully he will come through.”

Fleming said McConnell was “kind of vague” and didn’t provide much detail on how the miners would be assisted.

Jimmy Moore, the head of the Letcher County Black Lung Association, said he found McConnell’s conduct “rude.” After the meeting, he said McConnell wouldn’t do anything to reinstate the tax which funded the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

“He might’ve stayed a minute,” Moore said, referring to McConnell’s quick exit from the meeting. “...It was a worthless trip, that’s the way I feel.”

Robert Steurer, a spokesperson for McConnell, said the senator was “glad to welcome his constituents to the Capitol,” and that members of McConnell’s staff spoke with the miners for about an hour.

“It’s important to note that even though the temporary tax increase expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” Steurer said in a statement. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

Steurer said McConnell told the miners that the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund would be maintained, and that the miners shouldn’t be “wrapped with anxiety that somehow the money isn’t going to be there.”

“I wanted to reassure you all that we’re not going to let that happen and you have enough to worry about whether that’s going to happen and it’s not going to happen,” Steurer said McConnell told the miners. “Whatever the anxiety you’re feeling about that, don’t worry about it. We’re not going to let that happen.”

First responders on Tuesday had nothing but praise for McConnell, who met with them last month and promised a vote on legislation for 9/11 first responders before the August recess.

“He kept his word to me, he kept his word to the men who were in that meeting,” said John Feal, a construction worker who met with McConnell in June.

Sergio Gor, a spokesperson for Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, said a group of miners also met with members of Paul’s office. He said the senator’s staff is exploring ways it can assist.

The contingent of Kentucky miners were part of a larger group of about 150 miners and widows who met with legislators around the Capitol to advocate for greater benefits and more secure funding for federal programs that provide payments and health coverage for coal miners who suffer from black lung disease.

Amid the largest surge of cases in decades, the tax coal companies pay to help miners with black lung disease is slated to be cut in half. "If it's cut, it'd be catastrophic," said former coal miner Kenny Fleming.

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