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Retired Coal Miners At Risk Of Losing Promised Health Coverage And Pensions

Retired coal miners could face the loss of health benefits if Congress doesn't implement a fix by Friday.
Steve Helber
Retired coal miners could face the loss of health benefits if Congress doesn't implement a fix by Friday.

Without congressional intervention, about 16,000 retired miners in seven states will lose their health care coverage by the end of the year.

A proposal to temporarily extend the benefits is working its way through Congress. But two Senate Democrats, who are advocates for a more comprehensive plan, say the temporary provision isn't enough.

They are threatening to hold up a spending bill that needs to pass by Friday night to keep the government running.

Coal mining is dangerous work. For many miners, a government-backed promise of lifelong health care for them and their dependents made the risk worth taking.

Roger Merriman, 65, worked in the coal industry for 28 years.

"When we all started in the mines, we were promised health care for life – cradle to grave," he says. Merriman's employer, Patriot Coal, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, then again in 2015. He is now slated to lose his pension and benefits. Merriman says that possibility of losing health benefits for his wife, who is younger than he is (at 65, he qualifies for Medicare), and their pension, is devastating.

"We'll have to make a choice of whether [we're] going to the doctors and buying prescriptions or paying bills and eating. It's a life and death situation realistically is what it is," he says.

In 1946, the United Mine Workers of America and the U.S government agreed that union miners who put in 20 or more years would get lifelong pension and health benefits. Patriot is one of six major coal producers in the U.S. that has sought bankruptcy protection in the last few years, a process that often includes an attempt to drop retiree benefits.

After the Patriot bankruptcy in 2012, the UMWA negotiated a $400 million payment in bankruptcy court for retirees benefits. Existing companies pay into a UMWA fund for retirees, but as those mines close, there is less money going into the pot and the number of retired miners who are drawing from it is increasing. The fund is about to run out of money.

The UMWA's hope was that the $400 million would give federal lawmakers the time they needed to pass legislation that would protect the miners.

Senate Democrats have been working for years to pass the Miners Protection Act — a bill that would move money from the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Fund into a fund to pay for the pension and health care benefits of tens of thousands of coal miners and retirees.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, is frustrated by the benefits Band-Aid. "We're asking for a permanent fix, we have a plan to pay for a permanent fix — it's the excess that we have, the surplus in the AML money," he said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Manchin and colleague Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, are trying to block a key government spending bill on the Senate floor until miners get their full health care and pension money.

"I haven't ever used this tactic before, but I feel so compelled that I said we are going to do whatever we can to keep this promise," he said Tuesday.

But the Miners Protection Act has met with resistance from Senate Republicans, who are wary of bailing out unionized workers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., proposed a temporary fix — tacking on $45 million taken from the existing UMWA fund to the continuing resolution that is needed to fund the federal government through April 2017.

The continuing resolution must be approved by Friday. Manchin and others are frustrated that it is only a solution for a few months and that it doesn't include any money for pensions.

Critics of the Miners Protection Act say there are many struggling pension and benefits funds and that a government bailout sets a bad precedent.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, West Virginia Public Broadcasting andKaiser Health News.

Copyright 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.