By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Alabama’s only facility for residents with black lung disease is located in the offices of the Alabama Regional Medical Services (ARMS) building on Sixth Avenue South.
“It’s for people who work in the mines and for their family members to see if they qualify for the black lung benefits,” said
ARMS CEO Anthony Gardner. “[In patients with] black lung disease, the lungs are actually black from [years of working in mines and inhaling] the soot, so they have respiratory issues. What we do is [help them] fill out paperwork for the federal government.”
The proper name for black lung disease is coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). According to the American Lung Association, “pneumoconiosis is a general term given to any lung disease caused by dusts that are breathed in and then deposited deep in the lungs causing damage. … It is usually considered an occupational lung disease, and includes asbestosis, silicosis, and … black lung disease.”
The ARMS Black Lung Clinic Program is designed to seek out active and retired miners and other individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other occupation-related lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.
Marquetta Golightly, an ARMS outreach worker, travels across Alabama promoting the program and benefits of the clinic. Screenings—such as chest X-rays, electrocardiograms (EKGs), breathing and blood tests, and medical exams with a pulmonologist—are all performed at the ARMS Midtown location at Cooper Green Mercy Health Services, 1515 6th Ave. South.
ARMS then partners with the U.S. Department of Labor, the Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation to determine eligibility for benefits. These services are available to residents of Jefferson County and across the state.
“We test [patients], conduct screenings, and get lab results, which are sent to the government to determine if [the patient has black lung] disease,” Gardner said. “The benefits are similar to something like Social Security benefits.”
That’s just one of many services provided by ARMS, formerly known as Birmingham Healthcare for the Homeless, which rebranded four years ago under the slogan “Welcoming You With Open ARMS” and expanded its focus to serve more Magic City residents.
Patients can see social workers.
“We’ve always had social workers on site. … We’ve had professionals work with patients who have substance-abuse issues,” Gardner said. “There’s been a push to provide those kinds of services to those who need them.”
The facility now delivers babies: an OB-GYN offers services, and if delivery is necessary, ARMS patients go to Princeton Baptist Hospital.
Patients who need surgery also receive support.
“We have a referral system through which we refer patients who need surgeries or need to see specialists, so we’ve contracted with specialists in the community to accept our patients at a discounted rate,” said Gardner. “We refer to private offices, as well.”
ARMS is funded mostly by the federal government but also collects payments from patients, about 50 percent whom are uninsured.
“About 20 to 25 percent have Medicaid, 10 percent have Medicare, and the remaining self-pay,” Gardner said. “About 20 percent of the self-pay [patients] are homeless … [who] pay a nominal fee, rather than a minimum fee, because [this] does not create a barrier for patients receiving services for ARMS.
“It’s a sliding fee scale. One person may make $11,000; well, that is considered poor. Another person may make $20,000, so their fee may be more. If [a patient] is unable to pay at the time of the visit, we bill them—we don’t turn them away.”
Financial counselors are available, as well.
“They help [patients] look for other social services that can help with fees or bills …,” Gardner said. “A lot of people don’t realize that they may qualify for Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act. Our financial counselors help them realize that there may be a service for which they qualify for but don’t know about.”