Black lung is a debilitating disease that remains pervasive today. According to research from the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, black lung cases have increased in recent years, effecting younger individuals and resulting in more severe sickness.
Afflicted miners require access to medical resources, and under the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (BLDTF), they also require compensation for their medical care. An excise tax, paid by coal companies, ensures that miners receive due compensation.
The excise tax is the only source of revenue for the BLDTF, which is already over $4 billion in debt. In cases where the miners’ employer has gone bankrupt or not been found responsible, the BLDTF pays for medical benefits and provides a small monthly living stipend to coal miners who are disabled by black lung disease and to their surviving dependents.
In 2018, the excise tax was reduced and collected at 50% of its historic rate for the entirety of 2019, pushing the BLDTF deeper into debt. In 2019 and 2020 the higher, historic rate of the excise tax was reinstated through one-year tax extender bills, but the rate will be cut in half again at the end of this year without action from Congress.
In response to these trends, legislators have proposed a new bill, the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021, to extend the black lung excise tax for 10 years. This 10-year extension provides longer-term security for the fund and the miners who depend on it compared to short-term, one year extensions.
“Giving us 10 years of the historically higher excise tax prevents us from having to fight every year. We don’t have to worry every year about how the fund will be paid or have to call in to make sure they pass an extension,” said Gary Hairston, President of the National Black Lung Association, based in Fayette Co., WV. “We appreciate what Manchin has done, but we are waiting to see what more he is planning because if the fund falls into debt the taxpayers will have to pay it.”
The introduction of the 10-year extension comes after the House Ways and Means Committee passed a 4-year extension of the tax as part of its budget reconciliation bill. The 10-year extension more appropriately addresses the insolvency of the fund outlined in a May 2018 Government Accountability Office report, which indicated that the fund would not have sufficient revenue to cover beneficiary payments and administrative costs beginning in fiscal year 2020. The report found that increasing the tax rates by 25 percent would be necessary to eliminate the Trust Fund debt by fiscal year 2050. Solutions beyond an extension of the excise tax are becoming more and more critical as coal production declines. Revenues from the tax dropped by over 20% in fiscal year 2020 compared to revenues collected in 2018.
“We are grateful for the leadership of Senators Manchin, Brown, Kaine, Casey and Warner on this important issue. Without this bill, the rate of the black lung excise tax that provides revenues for the trust fund would reduce by 50% at the end of the year,” said Rebecca Shelton, the Director of Policy and Organizing, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “We know that an extension of the excise tax isn't the only measure that is needed to address the solvency of the fund, but it is an important first step and we look forward to working with all of these Senators to develop a long-term solution.”
“It is crucial that Congress act before the end of the year to ensure long-term solvency of the Trust Fund by including this tax extension in the budget reconciliation bill. Coal miners across the country have sacrificed their health and their lives to power our nation for centuries; ensuring these health and disability benefits long-term must be a priority. This bill is a crucial step forward,” said Chelsea Barnes, Legislative Director of Appalachian Voices.