EYEWITNESS LOCAL NEWSMiners Struggle To Get Black Lung Benefits
from Eyewitness News Online
Reported by: Kera Mashek
Web Producer: Kera Mashek
Reported: Oct. 30, 2013 10:26 PM EDT
Updated: Oct. 30, 2013 10:38 PM EDT
Chapmanville , Logan County , West Virginia
Wednesday night, ABC News took an in-depth look at an issue affecting dozens of coal miners right here in West Virginia. It's a battle over diagnosing black lung disease and getting miners the disability benefits they believe they are owed.
Black lung disease is an illness that thousands of current and former coal miners are now suffering through. It's a condition they believe is a direct result of all the hours they spent underground inhaling coal dust. That diagnosis should come with a disability payment from the coal companies, but the sad reality for many miners is that getting that disability payment is a battle tougher than the disease itself.
At just 58, Billy Williams of Champanville is retired after spending more than 30 years as a coal miner.
"I had pride in being a coal miner. I loved being a coal miner, and if I had to do it over, I'd be a coal miner again," Williams said.
But what's happened in the past five years has made him downright angry with the mining companies he worked for. Instead of enjoying his golden years, Billy Williams is disabled and confined to his home. You see, Williams has black lung disease, first diagnosed in 2008.
"When you lay down at night, it hurts so bad on the right side and left side, that I can't sleep," he said.
That's on top of coughing and severe allergies he's developed. He uses multiple inhalers, a nebulizer, and takes pills just to get through a day. So naturally, Williams has tried to get help for his condition, filing a black lung claim with the U.S. Department of Labor. Initially, it found there was enough proof for Williams to get benefits, after he submitted reports from five different doctors, all confirming his black lung disease. But instead of getting final approval , there was an about face.
"The Labor Board just dismissed the evidence," said Williams.
Instead, it went with the diagnosis two doctors the coal company sought the opinion of.
"Said I was probably obese, had TB, cancer, and called it everything but black lung," Williams said.
As a result, Williams hasn't seen a dime in disability benefits from his former employer. If the coal company's doctors had confirmed black lung, he'd be eligible for nearly a thousand dollars a month in disability, plus medical coverage.
"It makes me angry," he said.
Williams has filed an appeal and has reached out to West Virginia Congressional leaders for help, but he knows it's an uphill battle to get benefits approved for him and the thousands of other miners sick with black lung.
"The companies have more money than the men do," Williams said. "They have more power."
He is left to fear the worst -- that he will die before ever getting black lung benefits.
One of the doctors the company asked for an opinion on Billy Williams' black lung case works at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. The ABC News investigation confronted that doctor, and reported of the more than 1500 coal miner cases that doctor has reviewed, not a single one has been confirmed to have black lung, closing the door for them to get disability benefits. In fact, reports also showed that in 100 of those very cases, the miners died after filing claims for black lung benefits. Autopsies showed those 100 miners did, in fact, have black lung disease.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has introduced legislation attempting to help miners avoid this pitfall and have easier access to the black lung benefits they are owed.
READ MORE: ABC News Reporter Brian Ross' investigation "Out of Breath: The Untold Story of Big Money, Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies
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