By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of coal miners afflicted with black lung disease met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday as part of an effort to convince lawmakers to restore a higher excise tax on coal companies to help fund their medical care, but several said the meeting left them discouraged.
McConnell, the Republican leader who represents Kentucky - one of the states that has seen a rebound in the progressive respiratory illness - told them their benefits would be safe but gave no assurances about the excise tax and left without answering questions or offering details, several of the miners who attended the meeting said.
"We rode up here for 10 hours by bus to get some answers from him because he represents our state," said George Massey, a miner from Harlan County, Kentucky who spent two decades in the mines and is on disability. "For him to come in for just two minutes was a low-down shame."
David Mullins, who worked in coal mines for 34 years and is currently battling an advanced stage of black lung disease, said he was also frustrated. "It's time to act," he said, while wearing a “Black Lung Kills” T-shirt and using an oxygen tank.
Coal companies had been required to pay a $1.10 per ton tax on underground coal to finance the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which supports disabled miners whose employers go bankrupt and can no longer pay out medical benefits. But the amount reverted to the 1977 level of 55 cents this year after Congress declined to take action to maintain the rate.
The coal industry had lobbied hard to allow the tax to drop as scheduled, despite a government report saying the fund was in dire financial straits, arguing the companies were already facing economic pain and that benefits for afflicted miners would not be affected.
McConnell spokeswoman Stephanie Penn said the senator "was glad to welcome his constituents to the Capitol" but did not comment on miners' complaints. She said he is "working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained."
Massey and Mullins were among 120 miners and their families who traveled to Washington to call on Congress to restore the higher tax. The group also met with Democratic senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Democratic Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott - all of whom have supported different bills that would protect and strengthen their black lung benefits.
The Government Accountability Office has said without an extension of previous tax levels the fund’s debt will rise from $5 billion to $15 billion by 2050 – a burden that would likely have to be met by U.S. taxpayers instead of coal companies. Coal company bankruptcies and a resurgence of the disease are accelerating the risk of insolvency for the fund, according to the accountability office.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Tom Brown and Chris Reese)