LOUISVILLE, KY. — Former Appalachian coal miners and supporters are in Washington this week to urge lawmakers to extend a tax that benefits miners sick with black lung disease.

The excise tax paid by coal companies funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, but if Congress doesn't act the tax will decrease by about 55 percent at the end of the year.

Calling it a matter of life and death, supporters said the fund could be halved without the extension.

House Republicans inserted a one-year extension for the tax into a tax bill released this week.

The fund supplies benefits and a medical expense card to black lung sufferers and dependents when a coal company appeals the miner's black lung benefits award or when the company goes bankrupt, freeing it from paying black lung benefits. A federal report said the trust fund paid about $184 million in benefits to more than 25,000 coal miners and dependents in 2017.

Rates of black lung, an incurable disease, have been on the rise in Appalachia in recent years. A study this year from researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that rates of the most severe form of the disease are on the rise and that rate is highest in central Appalachia.