Ohio Valley ReSource

WKU Public Radio is part of a new regional journalism collaborative known as the Ohio Valley ReSource.  It's made up of public media stations across Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.  The collaborative will focus on the changing economy in the region and its effect on jobs, healthcare and infrastructure. 

Each station taking part in the Ohio Valley ReSource is hiring a reporter to contribute to the effort.  WKU Public Radio's reporter is Becca Schimmel, who will be based in the Bowling Green newsroom. 

The Ohio Valley ReSource is made possible by member stations and through a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. 

Ways to Connect

Benny Becker

Federal health researchers are visiting health clinics and medical schools in the Appalachian coalfields to recruit allies in the fight a resurgence of black lung disease. The worst form of the disease may affect as many as 5 percent of experienced working miners in the region, and the researchers fear that rate could be even higher among retired miners. 

Medical students filled an auditorium at the University of Pikeville, Kentucky, to hear the latest on this scourge of coal communities, a disease many think should be history by now.

If we come to your town there’s generally something bad going on there,” said Dr. Scott Laney, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH. He was part of a research team that identified a resurgence in the worst form of black lung disease in a study published late last year. 

Courtesy CVI

When President Donald Trump visited Kentucky for a recent rally he returned to a common theme from his campaign: environmental regulations are job-killers.

“I have already eliminated a devastating anti-coal regulation,” he said, referring to a measure he recently signed overturning a Department of Interior stream protection rule. “And that is just the beginning,” the president continued, pledging to turn the Environmental Protection Agency “from a job killer into a job creator.”

But in parts of coal country environmental regulations aren’t killing jobs, they’re creating them. Stream restoration made possible under the Clean Water Act is a multi-billion dollar industry and some former coal miners are finding work thanks to this revenue stream.

Howard Berkes/NPR

A bipartisan group of legislators has asked President Donald Trump to make more money available for black lung health clinics as they face an increase in cases of the disease among coal miners.  

More than 20 clinics would benefit from the $3.3 million increase lawmakers are requesting. The clinics provide miners with health screenings, medical care, and assistance in securing black lung benefits.

The lawmakers wrote in a letter to the president and the White House budget director that the level of funding for clinics has been frozen for the past five years.  

Defunding Appalachia: Coal Communities Resist President’s Budget Cuts

Mar 27, 2017
Rebecca Kiger

Danny Ferguson didn’t like what he saw happening in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he grew up. The downturn in the coal industry had hit hard, and young people had few job options beyond some fast food places.

“We don’t have nothing else for them to be employed,” Ferguson said. “Lincoln County is in bad shape and Coalfield seemed like the only one willing to take a chance in that area.”

That’s the Coalfield Development Corporation, where Ferguson now works as a crew chief to mentor and train young people in carpentry and other skills. Trainees earn pay while getting experience as they reclaim old buildings, restore furniture, and install solar energy stations. Ferguson said the program offers hope in an otherwise bleak situation.

“The coal is dead, but they’re trying to find something for these kids to go do instead of nothing.”

Miners' Message To Trump: Protect Our Benefits

Mar 20, 2017
Becca Schimmel

President Donald Trump’s campaign-style rally in Louisville got the attention of some retired coal miners in the region. They’re particularly worried about being able to afford health insurance on a new plan.

Retired union miners have been traveling to Washington to urge passage of The Miner’s Protection Act, which would secure their health and pension benefits. More than 22,000 coal retirees and beneficiaries could lose their benefits at the end of April if congress doesn’t act. They’ve requested a meeting with President Trump. Retired miner Steve Earle said there are a few things he’d like to say to the president.

 


Todd Lappin via Flickr

Note: Some readers may find this subject matter disturbing.

When Beth Jacobs was 16 years old, she needed a ride home. She had missed her bus after work again after promising her father she was responsible enough not to make it a habit. She asked a man she thought was a friend to give her a lift. He offered her a drink from his car’s cup holder. She took a sip and woke up in a parking lot hours later.

“And he was like, ‘Baby do you know what I am?’” Jacobs recalled decades later. “He said, ‘I'm a pimp.’ I reached for the door, and he grabbed my hair and he said, ‘I own you now.’”

The pimp told Jacobs if she didn’t cooperate he would kill her and her father. Jacobs believed him. “He had taken me home before, he knew where I lived.”

Benny Becker

As President Trump promises major investment in infrastructure, people across the country are hoping that includes spending on water pipes for drinking.

Flint, Mich., was a high-profile example of the many communities — like one in Eastern Kentucky — where people just can’t trust their water.

In Martin County, Ky., the water intake pulls from a river heavily contaminated by sewage and years of coal and gas extraction.

Josie Delong, a resident of the county, says she used to drink tap water until a doctor told her it could be the cause of her health issues.

Rebecca Kiger

Wendy Crites is a single mom, a Christian and a recovering addict in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. She's on parole and receiving substance abuse treatment through the Jefferson Day Report Center. Crites has been using drugs since she was 13, intravenously since she was 15.

“Everyone has some kind of addiction,” she said. “I believe it’s that hole everyone has in their heart that you’re trying to fill -- I’ve filled it with drugs. I think it’s really something only God can do. And I think he uses our weaknesses to bring us to him.”

Crites has a 26-year-old daughter, Ashley, and a 12-year-old son, Devin.

“I have the sweetest son - half of his life he’s saw me be strung out on drugs. He’s getting ready be a teenager, and I just want to be a good role model for him.”

Becca Schimmel

Retired coal miners face a one-two punch to their health benefits that could leave many of them in the lurch. A repeal of Obamacare and the expiration of miner’s health protections could make it hard for any coal retiree to get health care.

Ohio Valley retirees have been meeting one-on-one with congressional leaders to talk about the risks to their benefits. Some provisions of the Affordable Care Act are especially important to miners. The so-called Byrd Amendment deals with benefits for miners suffering from black lung, and miners hope it will be restored if the Act is repealed. Miners are also concerned about the Act’s pre-existing condition provision.

United Mine Workers communications director Phil Smith said the nature of the work makes every retired miner a “walking basket of pre-existing conditions.”


Rebecca Kiger

On a recent gray winter morning Tomas Green drove the rain slick streets of Ranson in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. No matter the weather, Green helps transport clients working through addiction at the Jefferson Day Report Center get to their treatment sessions and meetings.

“If they need rides, I use my own personal transportation sometimes,” he said.

As a Peer Coach for the center, he strives to go above and beyond for the clients. Green can relate to his passengers: He’s in recovery himself.

His experience taught him recovery can be difficult. And now he wants to help others stay on the right path.

“For me, I share with everybody it’s good to have a good support system.”

Kentucky Hospital Assoc.

Since the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act the health care sector has grown by more than 19,000 jobs in the Ohio Valley region. And some economists who focus on health care policy are warning that many of those jobs could well hang in the balance as Congress considers changes to the Act.

One of the ACA’s effects in the Ohio Valley region has been to sharply reduce costs for what’s called uncompensated care — that’s the cost of caring for the uninsured.

Dustin Pugel is an economist at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan research center. He said in Kentucky’s rural hospitals there’s been about a $150 million decrease in uncompensated care costs just in the first quarter after Medicaid expansion. He worries that if the ACA is repealed more people will lose their health insurance, and hospitals will have to cover that cost again.

  

Courtesy Mountain Comprehensive Care

Mike Caudill runs Mountain Comprehensive Care Corporation in five eastern Kentucky counties. Many of his 30,000 patients gained insurance through Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. No one knows if or when those folks might lose coverage. But, Caudill said, the impact could be considerable.

“I don’t want to be a Chicken Little that the sky is falling. On the other hand, neither do I want to stick my head in the sand,” he said. “A lot of it is the unknown. We don’t know what is going to happen.”

Caudill runs federally qualified health centers, providing primary and preventive care such as doctor’s visits and vaccinations. They also support community programs including a day care and a service providing fresh fruits and vegetables to 700 people who are chronically ill. If there are significant changes in his revenue because of a repeal of the ACA, Caudill said, those programs that improve the quality of life in the community would be the first to go.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

The Ohio Valley region once helped give rise to the labor movement. Now it’s shifting toward what’s known as right to work. West Virginia and Kentucky have passed right to work laws, and Ohio is considering a similar bill. One of the big selling points for right to work proponents is that the law can attract new businesses. Opponents argue that potential comes at too high a cost to workers.  

Mike Mullis is a site selection consultant who has spent 25 years helping global corporations, such as Toyota, pick the places where they will build major projects. He said some companies – particularly in manufacturing – will perk up when they hear the words “right to work.” However, that doesn’t mean businesses will come flocking to a state.


Mary Meehan

Dona Wells walked through what’s left of the EMW Women’s Clinic in Lexington, Kentucky. Boxes fill what use to be offices. Sterilized medical supplies are in disarray. A light flickers on and off in the back hallway. She doesn’t see a point in fixing it. At 75, she still runs 25 miles a week, but Wells is tired.

“I was going to retire anyway, probably this year,” she said. But I wanted to do it on my terms, not Gov. Bevin’s terms.”

That would be Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who recently signed two bills into law further restricting abortion services: one requiring an ultrasound as part of abortions and another prohibiting the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The final straw for Wells came in the form of a new license requirement from the state. Wells has been battling restrictive rules for most of the clinic’s 28 years, but the battle is over now. She’s closing the clinic.

John Ted Dagatano

She asked to not be identified. And it’s understandable given the stigma attached to addiction. For this story, we’ll call her “Mary.”

Mary lives in eastern Kentucky and has struggled with an addiction that began with painkillers and progressed to heroin.

“As soon as I opened my eyes, I had to get it,” Mary said. “And even when I did get it, then I had to think of the next way that I was going to get.”

Mary was using when she learned she was pregnant with her first child. She sought treatment but the disease had a tight grip on her.

The child was born dependent on opioids and went through the pains of withdrawal shortly after delivery.

“To see that little boy go through that stuff, you’d think that I would, like, change my life around immediately but I didn’t,” Mary said. “I didn’t want to believe it. I was in complete denial that because of my choices, it was my fault that he was going through that.”

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