This week, a House subcommittee is holding a hearing on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The hearing, titled, “Asleep at the Switch: How the Department of Labor Failed to Oversee the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund,” is certain to include a lot of finger pointing. It could also prove productive if the right questions are asked and Congress wants to get serious about black lung benefits.
Any one case of black lung is too many, and industry has proposed a number of reforms to the government to better protect miners. But for those who have already been diagnosed, we must ensure they have the benefits they deserve. Coal companies already pay in multiple ways to ensure support for every miner who needs it.
First, coal companies pay benefits to their own miners when a claim is approved. Second, coal companies pay into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays for benefits when a prior employer no longer exists, due to bankruptcy or another reason.
Industry has met its commitment over the decades. In fact, coal companies have paid more than $22.2 billion into the fund, more than covering the $17.5 billion in claims that have been paid out since its creation in 1977.
Managers of the fund in government have not held up their end. Despite the number of beneficiaries dropping 85 percent since 1977, administrative costs per claim have climbed 1,200 percent. That’s unacceptable and symptomatic of even larger problems.
Today, due to legacy debt that dates back to the fund’s inception, ballooning administrative costs and falling revenue from declining coal production, the fund is in a difficult position. It requires a thoughtful, permanent fix that reckons with these realities.
Simply leaning on industry to increase revenue – as some in Congress want to do – will only exacerbate the problem. Coal mining companies are already facing pressure from a weakened marketplace. Further leaning on industry to cover the fund is unsustainable and may inadvertently cause more bankruptcies, increasing the burden on the fund.
Put simply, the financial challenges within the existing Black Lung Disability Trust Fund are a problem you can’t tax your way out of. Mismanagement of the program from the outset and continued mismanagement today require action from Congress. Ill-conceived solutions that lean on industry, while ignoring declining production and the challenges coal country faces when mines close, are no solutions at all.
- On February 26, 2020