Black lung is surging, but bill to undo limits on doctors stalls without a hearing

Ernie Gillispie was diagnosed with black lung after 37 years working in Kentucky coal mines. He blew into a machine to test his oxygen output during a checkup after a double-lung transplant.
Ernie Gillispie was diagnosed with black lung after 37 years working in Kentucky coal mines. He blew into a machine to test his oxygen output during a checkup after a double-lung transplant.

A bill that would have rescinded restrictions on the types of physicians who can diagnose black lung disease will likely not get a vote in the Kentucky House of Representatives this year, said Rep. Angie Hatton, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The proposal’s likely failure comes amid the largest resurgence of black lung in decades, one that has left more than 20 percent of Central Appalachian coal miners with the deadly and incurable disease.

House Bill 75 would have undone a portion of a bill passed last year that imposed new limits on the types of physicians who can diagnose black lung. Critics say that bill, House Bill 2, made it harder for miners seeking black lung benefits to succeed in their claims.

“People are dying in my district who, without a lung transplant, will die a painful, slow death,” said Hatton, D-Whitesburg. “As long as miners are dying this issue isn’t going to die.”

Before House Bill 2 became law last year, federally-certified radiologists were allowed to read the X-rays of miners seeking state black lung benefits. Now, only pulmonary specialists can read those X-rays.

Critics of the bill said pulmonologists will be less likely to diagnose a miner with black lung than some of the previously-approved radiologists.

“They changed the law for a reason, and I assure you it wasn’t to make it any more likely that a coal miner would get an award,” said Phillip Wheeler, a Pikeville attorney who represents miners in black lung claims.

Wheeler, a Republican, won a special election to represent state Senate District 31 this week but has not yet been sworn in.

The full impact of HB 2 and whether it will severely curtail miners’ chances at receiving benefits is still unclear, Wheeler said.

“We’re probably just a little bit early to tell because the new system has not been in place for a year yet,” Wheeler said. “But I think the state exams are coming back at lower X-ray levels than they were before.”

HB 2 passed with majority Republican support, and Wheeler blames his party for the likely failure of Hatton’s bill this session.

“In deference to my colleagues, I don’t know if there’s anybody in the legislature that’s familiar with black lung like I am,” Wheeler said. “My hope is I can change some hearts and minds when they see the empirical data.”

Black lung is incurable and often leads to an early death. It is caused by breathing in dust created during the mining process.

Both underground and surface coal miners are exposed to the types of dust that lead to black lung.

More than 76,000 miners have died from black lung since 1968, and the prevalence of the disease has spiked in recent years, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published last year.

In the late 1990s, about 5 percent of miners had black lung disease. That rate jumped to more than 20 percent in Central Appalachia last year, according to the NIOSH study.

Rep. Adam Koenig, who sponsored House Bill 2 last year, said the purpose of the bill was to make black lung cases comply with a 2011 Supreme Court case regarding workers’ compensation requirements.

The court struck down a law that held coal miners to a higher standard of proof than other workers who were seeking benefits for lung diseases similar to black lung.

“It was about having a system that was compliant with the Supreme Court ruling,” said Koenig, R-Erlanger.

Koenig said the number of pulmonologists able to diagnose black lung cases is the same under House Bill 2 as the number of radiologists prior to that bill’s passing.

“There’s no evidence that we limited the number of options available, they’re just different options,” Koenig said. “When we collect the data, and if the data shows there is a problem, I’ll be first in line to fix it.”

House Bill 75 has yet to get a hearing in the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee.

Committee chairman Russell Webber, R-Shepherdsville, did not respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, a group of former miners and widows, along with Eric Dixon, the senior coordinator of policy and community engagement for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, traveled to Frankfort to support HB 75.

Dixon said the group met with Webber, but “we haven’t gotten a good reason for why this bill has not had a hearing.”

“It was clear it was not a priority for (Webber) to give this bill a hearing,” Dixon said. “What’s frustrating about that is the bill was pre-filed in a bipartisan way before the session started.”

The measure has three Republican co-sponsors, including Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt, who announced in January he will challenge Gov. Matt Bevin in the upcoming gubernatorial primary election.

“Politicians often say they care about coal miners and they’re fighting for coal miners, and I don’t know if you could have a bill that’s more clearly to benefit coal miners,” Dixon said. “If you’re a legislator and you say you support coal miners, you should support House Bill 75 and it should be a priority.”

Linda Adams, the widow of a miner who died of black lung at the age of 53, said she believes the black lung section of House Bill 2 was designed solely to save money for the coal companies that bear the cost of black lung claims.

“They’re waiting for these miners to choke to death,” Adams said. “If House Bill 75 goes through, it would help a whole lot of miners get the benefits they earned.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.