Scott County former coal miner fights for black lung disease benefits

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HELENWOOD (WATE) – Congress ordered black lung to be eradicated from the coal industry in 1969, and laws were established to compensate sick miners.

However, the miners, isolated in rural communities away from the spotlight, have a fight on their hands trying to gain benefits.

In underground coal mines, coal miners have inhaled tiny particles of dust which assault their lungs, making them sick and sometimes killing them.

“It gets worser. By days and months it gets worser,” said former miner Leo Strunk.

It’s gotten worse for Strunk since he left the mines in the early 1990’s, when he first became ill and applied for benefits under the federal government’s Black Lung Benefits Program.

“They approved me, then they took it away from me. I ain’t been able to get no benefits or nothing,” he said.

“He has four little grandchildren and they’re at the age where they want their grandpa, to get out and play with them. He’s not able,” said Cindy Strunk, Leo’s wife.

In Leo Strunk’s case, his diagnosis for complicated black lung showed up in X-rays. There were a battery of breathing and blood gas tests, too.

"It gets worser. By days and months it gets worser," said former miner Leo Strunk.
“It gets worser. By days and months it gets worser,” said former miner Leo Strunk.

“It also shows which doctor diagnosed him with pneumoconiosis,” explained Cindy.

For over two decades, Leo Strunk, a non-smoker, has accumulated a mountain of paperwork showing he had won benefits only to have them rejected when X-rays were examined by company doctors.

It’s not an easy task convincing the mining companies to pay for compensation for damage done to miners’ lungs. The companies fight most cases.

“The federal black lung system is a very adversarial system,” said Debbie Willis, a benefits counselor with with the National Black Lung Association.

We visited Scarbro, W.V. to talk with members of the National Black Lung Association, a group that advocates for benefits. They say the deck is stacked against the miners.

“It puts average coal miners with average educational backgrounds against company lawyers who have unlimited financial resources,” said Willis.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster for Leo Strunk. Most recently, in August 2011, he was awarded a $950 a month disability benefit for black lung by the U.S. Labor Department.

It's gotten worse for Strunk since he left the mines in the early 1990's, when he first became ill and applied for benefits under the federal government's Black Lung Benefits Program.
It’s gotten worse for Strunk since he left the mines in the early 1990’s, when he first became ill and applied for benefits under the federal government’s Black Lung Benefits Program.

Strunk says that was a good day. However, the euphoria didn’t last long and Strunk has about given up hope because the mining company where he worked challenged the benefits award, again. Strunk’s claim was rejected in December 2011.

As his records show, one of Strunk’s early negative diagnoses came from the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. where radiologist Dr. Paul Wheeler is co-director of the pneumoconiosis section.

Following reports aired last November wherein ABC’s Brian Ross interviewed Dr. Wheeler, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung unit. It remains suspended today and congress has called for an inquiry.

The reason was ABC and the Center for Public Integrity discovered during a records inquest that out of 1,573 cases of severe black lung, Dr. Wheeler found not a single case.

Among them is Strunk’s negative X-ray reading for black lung from the mid 1990s. Sick and fighting for his breath, what is his next step?

“He has to re-file. He has to fight. It is not going to be handed out to you overnight,” said Nancy Massie with the National Black Lung Association.

Strunk has been battling 21 years to gain his benefits, and many other miners find themselves in the same fix.

“It is such a long process. It’s complicated. They can’t find the help that they need,” said Susie Criss, director of the Black Lung Rehabilitation Center. “They give up. I think that is the intention.”

Strunk says he will continue his fight for black lung benefits.

“I deserve it. My family deserves it,” he said.

Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, if a miner succeeds in winning benefits, the coal company associated with the claim is responsible for paying the miner’s heath care costs in addition to monthly benefits.

Miners also need an attorney to represent them. Only if they succeed, if the miner wins his case, does the government or coal company pay the attorney.

The system is very regulated.

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