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Rural Blog: As black-lung cases have surged in Central Appalachia, so have lung transplants


A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine shows that, as black-lung cases have surged in the Central Appalachian coalfield, so have lung transplants. The expensive surgery can be risky, and most transplant recipients die within five years. The study, conducted by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “found that 62 black lung patients had lung transplant surgery over the past two decades, and most of the miners lived in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia,” Benny Becker reports for Ohio Valley ReSource. “The study also found that more than two dozen patients were placed on a wait list for transplants. Of those, 11 died while waiting.”

The study’s lead author, David Blackley, said that the rate of lung transplants for black-lung patients increased nearly threefold in the last decade. “That suggested pretty strongly to us that this is a problem that’s getting worse,” he told Becker.

Insurance from coal companies and other private sources paid for about one-third of the lung transplants. Nearly two-thirds were paid for with public insurance, including 26 percent paid for by Medicare and up to 24 percent paid for by the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. “That fund has paid more than $45 billion to cover benefits for miners who can’t seek benefits from their employer because the responsible company has either gone bankrupt or can’t be identified,” Becker reports. A federal study is looking into how long the fund can stay solvent given the rise in cases.

The researchers who conducted the study had also recently discovered that the spike in late-stage black lung in Central Appalachia is the largest cluster of the disease ever recorded.

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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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