PRINCETON, West Virginia, June 1 (Reuters) – As a young man, Barry Shrewsbury dug coal in the West Virginia mines and spent his time off hunting and fishing in the rolling hills. Now, at 62, he struggles to breathe and accomplish basic tasks such as shopping and showering, and relies on a federal fund for ex-miners with black lung disease to pay for an oxygen tank and doctor visits.
“The benefits are a lifeline,” Shrewsbury said between labored breaths after a treatment at the Bluestone Health Center, an industrial-style building set against a leafy landscape in Princeton, West Virginia.
That lifeline is threatened. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is at risk of insolvency due to soaring debt and a slashing of coal-company contributions through a tax cut scheduled for the end of the year, according to a report the U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to publish soon, two sources briefed on the study told Reuters.
That shortfall – which comes as black lung rates hit highs not seen in decades – could force the fund to restrict benefits or shift some of the financial burden to taxpayers, the sources said on condition of anonymity. The fund currently provides medical coverage and monthly payments for living expenses to more than 15,000 people, according to a Congressional report published this year.
The coal industry, meanwhile, is lobbying Congress to ensure the scheduled tax reduction goes forward, arguing the payments have already been too high at a difficult time for mining companies and that the fund has been abused by undeserving applicants.
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