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Congress boosts black lung treatment funding in 15 coal-producing states by $10 million

“Rural medical clinics that are struggling to respond to an epidemic of a fatal lung disease plaguing coal miners received a 40 percent boost in federal funding with the passage of the omnibus spending bill last week,” reports NPR’s Howard Berkes, who can claim some credit for the increase. Twenty-eight black lung clinics in 15 coal states will get a $10 million bump in funding, up from $2.7 million.

The funding, sought by a bipartisan group in Congress, will be a critical tool in treating a disease some government officials thought was close to being eliminated but has made a comeback in the last decade, perhaps because coal companies increasingly mine thinner seams and excavate a larger proportion of other rock, which creates a different kind of dust but one that causes progressive massive fibrosis of the lungs.

Despite a decline in approved claims for black-lung benefits, Berkes’ research showed about 2,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis, diagnosed in Appalachia since 2010. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had only reported 99 new cases in the same time period, but bumped the number up to 416 after NPR’s research was published. The agency confirmed NPR’s findings last month.

The drive for more funding was spearheaded by Virginia Reps. Bobby Scott, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican. They and four other members wrote an open letter to President Trump last year in which they noted that black-lung clinics “have faced a substantial increase in demands from coal miners for screening, diagnosis, and pulmonary rehabilitation” and that “some clinics are so underfunded that they are operating with obsolete and inefficient diagnostic equipment, which is needlessly increasing miners’ radiation dose when they receive a chest X-ray.”

Griffith said, “Coal miners are proud of the work they do, but should they develop black lung, they also want to be taken care of, and I agree.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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