In 1969, Congress passed what was supposed to be a one-shot program making federal payments to disabled coal miners who had black lung disease.
In 1972, Congress expanded the program to include all coal miners with black lung, whether they were disabled or not.
This year, the House Education and Labor Committee would like to expand the bill so that anyone who worked in a coal mine for 30 years could receive black lung benefits without providing he even had the disease.
Even for the strong-stomached Rules Committee, which must pass on almost all legislation on its way to the floor, this was a bit much. Yesterday its members decided by voice vote to hold the bill a second time and ask Education and Labor Committee Chairman Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.) if he wouldn't like to reconsider. They had already sent the bill back to Perkins' committee once, on May 12. The committee cut the funding level but didn't touch anything else.
"I don't know what else we can do to get the idea across to them that we aren't happy with this bill," one Rules Committee member said.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the Rules Committee complained that the bill "creates, in effect, a pension program" rather than a disability program.
Rep. John P. Murtha Jr. (D-Pa.) said that basing eligibility on the length of employment (30 years in a bituminous coal mine, 25 years in an anthracite mine) was "the only way of being fair about it," Murtha said medical technology could not distinguish black lung, a respiratory disease caused by breathing coal dust, from other diseases, such as emphysema.
"The only way to tell you have black lung is by an autopsy," Murtha said.
He said autopsies of miners revealed 88 per cent had black lung.
However, Rep. Ronald A. Sarasin (R-Conn.) said it was possible to diagnose black lung. He cited a 1976 National Academy of Sciences report that showed that after 30 years in the coal mines of anthracite regions 60 per cent of the miners had any stage of black lung. With 14.3 per cent at a disabling stage.
Sarasin said that in addition to black lung benfits, the miners could collect Social Security disability and miners' pensions.
More than 500,000 people have applied to the Social Security Administration for black lung benefits (including widows of miners who are eligible to collect). The cumulative cost of the program was $1 billion in 1976.