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UMW health care benefits secured in budget deal

Gazette-Mail file photo
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts stands next to a bust of longtime union President John L. Lewis.

More than 22,000 retired coal miners and their families will continue to receive health care benefits, under a federal budget deal that the United Mine Workers union said provides permanent funding for those benefits.

The language sought by the UMW and by West Virginia’s congressional delegation is contained in a three-page section that starts on page 1,660 of a 1,665-page bill that would fund government operations through for the rest of the budget year, which runs through the end of September.

UMW President Cecil Roberts called for quick passage by the House and the Senate of the agreed-to language and noted that the union still needs to work on a funding fix for its pension plan, which has financial troubles that affect an even larger number of coalfield families.

“Swift passage of that bill by Congress this week will mean that those senior citizens and their families will finally have the peace of mind about their future that has eluded them for years,” Roberts said in a prepared statement.

Lawmakers unveiled the language of the deal early Monday, after including an extension of the health care benefits late last week in another in a series of stopgap funding measures to keep government operating in the absence of an actual budget for an entire financial year. Efforts to provide a long-term fix for the UMW’s pension and health care plans had been stalled partly because the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had not put the full bill up for a floor vote. Late last year, other coal-state lawmakers were able to secure only a four-month extension for the health care benefits.

“This is a permanent fix, not another kick-the-can-down-the-road,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Retired miners have been facing financial uncertainty because a key UMW pension plan is severely underfunded after suffering significant investment losses during the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis and the downturn of the coal industry that forced some major producers into bankruptcy court. The pension plan — which is not covered by the new budget deal — provides benefits to about 89,000 retirees and widows. Another roughly 29,000 miners have vested in the plan but are not yet receiving their benefits.

The budget language is aimed at dealing with the most immediate problem for the UMW, the health care benefits for more than 22,000 retirees and family members who lost permanent funding for those benefits during the bankruptcy reorganizations of companies like Peabody Energy, Patriot Coal and Alpha Natural Resources.

Under the deal, those benefits would be funded through part of an already statutorily mandated transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that flow through the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned-mine cleanup program and the UMW benefits plan.

Specifically, the budget deal makes miners whose benefits were threatened by a coal industry bankruptcy in 2012 or 2015 eligible for funding under the transfer of Treasury funds from the AML program at the Department of the Interior.

As a budgetary offset for the additional Treasury funds for miner health benefits, the bill extends certain Customs user fees on goods that are brought into the United States. Phil Smith, a union spokesman, said that, starting in 2026, money from those Customs fees would be used to repay the Treasury for expenditures for the UMW health care benefits in the decade between now and then.

In its news release Monday afternoon, the UMW thanked Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., as well as Reps. David McKinley and Evan Jenkins, both R-W.Va., for their work to get the health care language into the budget deal.

Capito said Monday, “Protecting health care benefits for our nation’s coal miners has been one of my top priorities, and I am pleased that Congress has finally agreed on a permanent fix to preserve health care for these hardworking men and women. I will continue to lead efforts in Congress that help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production.”

McKinley said the permanent fix for miner health care “is great news for all of the hardworking miners and family members who have been constantly worried about losing their health care benefits they earned,” adding that “while this development on health care is welcome news, we must continue the fight to protect coal miner pensions. I look forward to leading this bipartisan effort in the House.”

Jenkins said, “We’ve been operating on stopgap measures or tragically, no measures, and just kicked the can down the road for future congresses. What we’ve now been able to do is stop kicking and we got ’er done, making peace of mind for our retirees so their health benefits are secure for the future.”

The budget deal language is the most recent in a long line of federal government actions aimed at protecting coal miners, whose work often leaves them sick or disabled but whose industry has frequently tried to dodge long-term liabilities for health care benefits and pensions.

Those government actions date back to the 1940s, when creation of a health and welfare fund for miners through a deal between legendary UMW President John L. Lewis and then-Interior Secretary Julius A. Krug helped end a stalemate between the union and the government, which had seized the nation’s mines in response to a strike.

More recently, Congress passed legislation in 1992 to preserve benefits for UMW retirees as coal companies tried to abandon the union’s national contract and benefit programs. And, since 1995, interest on the federal AML program’s trust fund — a fund that comes from coal industry taxes — was diverted to ensure health care benefits for retirees.

“The thousands of UMW members who marched, rallied, made phone calls and wrote letter after letter to their representatives in Washington were the keys to this,” Roberts said. “Their efforts made the critical difference, and to them goes the lion’s share of the credit for getting us to this point.”

Staff writer Jake Zuckerman contributed to this report.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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