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Tired of the hassle

Cathy and Pinkey Mullens go over Pinkey’s medicines recently at their Glen Fork home in Wyoming County. They and other retirees of Gov. Jim Justice’s coal companies and their dependents say they are tired of lapses in prescription drug coverage they allege that the companies have promised but failed to provide without increasingly frequent interruptions in recent years. Pinkey Mullens was diagnosed with leukemia in 2018.

Cathy Mullens knows tomorrow isn’t promised to her husband, Pinkey — especially since his leukemia diagnosis four years ago.

She just wants him to have the prescription drug coverage that Gov. Jim Justice’s coal companies promised him.

“He’s already done his work,” Cathy said Friday evening of Pinkey, who is 15 years removed from a three-decade coal mining career in which he persevered through 16-hour shifts and an accident that broke his ribs. “Let him live in peace for whatever time he’s got left. That’s all I ask.”

But Cathy’s attention has been diverted frequently lately away from her time left with Pinkey to just getting the Bluestone Coal Corp. retiree the medications needed to lengthen that time as much as possible.

Pinkey is out of the metoprolol he takes to keep his blood pressure from fluctuating, as well as pravastatin, a medicine that lowers cholesterol, and Protonix, which guards against high amounts of stomach acid.

Pinkey, 67, and Cathy, 62, of Wyoming County, are among the 250 to 300 recipients the United Mine Workers union says has had to deal with dangerous interruptions in their prescription drug coverage promised but routinely not provided by Justice’s coal companies.

The companies promised to provide prescription drug coverage in contractual agreements with the UMW at the end of 2016.

In late 2017, retirees and their dependents began contacting the union about unpaid medical and prescription drug bills.

Cathy and other recipients say the lapses in coverage have become more frequent in recent months, despite a long history of federal court orders requiring them to stop.

Andrew Lafferty, 72, who retired from Keystone Service Industries in 2005 after a 37-year mining career, said coverage interruptions have been happening “every couple of weeks.”

“We shouldn’t have to be bothered with this,” said Lafferty, of McDowell County.

The UMW and four Justice coal company retirees on Thursday asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia to find five companies controlled by the Justice family in contempt of court for failing to comply with a June 2021 order directing the companies to comply with agreements they made to provide uninterrupted health care and prescription drug coverage to eligible retirees and their dependents.

The union and retiree plaintiffs filing on behalf of others similarly situated are seeking to be paid back for any out-of-pocket expenses incurred by retirees and their eligible dependents during the time that their prescription drug coverage was terminated.

“[W]e expect the company to do what is right and pay the expenses incurred during the lapse in coverage,” UMW spokesperson Erin Bates said in an email.

Steve Ruby, an attorney for the companies, said Friday that retiree health coverage had been restored. Lafferty and Mullens said they had not received notice confirming that as of Friday evening.

“The companies are working with the insurance provider to make changes to the plan that will prevent future disruptions while maintaining the same high level of benefits,” Ruby said in an email.

Ruby declined comment on what had caused the disruption.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lafferty said he and his wife, Linda, have had to pay for medications out of pocket when the company’s coverage has lapsed — and that they’ve never been reimbursed.

“We’re on a fixed income and don’t have a lot of extra money at the end of each month,” Lafferty said, recalling spending $500 on their last medication purchase that covered a lactulose prescription to treat Linda’s chronic liver disease. “Paying for these drugs just about breaks you.”

Cathy said the lapses have lasted up to three weeks. They’ve resulted in retirees and their dependents traveling to pharmacies only to find that their coverage had dropped out again, prompting them to make calls to the UMW’s legal department, Bluestone and the Health Plan, the Wheeling-based third-party administrator that Ruby said processes the companies’ retiree medical claims.

“We shouldn’t have to deal with this,” Mullens said. “None of us should.”

Retirees and their dependents say they have had to go without treatment and refrain from filling prescriptions that should have been covered because they can’t pay for them.

“How would he like it if he had to deal with this, if some company he worked for was trying to take his insurance, his prescription medication away?” Mullens said of Justice.

“Justice is absolutely on notice about the risk it is running for failing to provide prescription coverage,” UMW associate general counsel T.J. Baker wrote in a March 1 email to Bluestone human resources and legal personnel included in a Thursday court filing. “A Bluestone retiree may suffer irreparable harm at any time.”

Baker sent emails in February and early March to Bluestone personnel saying that more than 20 retirees and active members had reported interrupted drug coverage, per the filing.

“This has been going on for at least nine (9) days,” Baker wrote in a Feb. 25 email. “Without medication soon, I am extremely concerned that one or more of Bluestone’s retirees is going to experience a life-threatening medical emergency.”

Thursday’s filings from the union and the four retiree plaintiffs — James E. Graham II of Monroe County; Dennis Adkins of Jacksonville, North Carolina; Roger Wriston of Fayette County; and David Polk of Wyoming County — was their first since July, when they withdrew their last request to find the companies in contempt for failure to comply with the previous month’s order.

Less than two weeks after the June 2021 order, the union and four retiree plaintiffs submitted a filing alleging that the companies had allowed a lapse in drug coverage for the 10th time in less than nine months.

“I wish all of this aggravation would stop,” Mullens said.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in August 2019 against the Justice Energy Co., Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal Corp., Double-Bonus Coal Co. and Southern Coal Corp.

The Justice Energy, Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal and Double-Bonus Coal agreed in collective bargaining in 2016 to provide UMW retirees prescription drug coverage.

In March 2021, the two sides reached an agreement to resolve the lawsuit. But the plaintiffs told the court less than six weeks later that the companies were still failing to provide drug coverage, resulting in the June 2021 order.

The Justice coal companies have a history of unpaid obligations after failing to protect their employees.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday asked the District Court for the Western District of Virginia to order 23 Justice coal companies to comply with an April 2020 court order requiring them to pay $5.13 million in civil penalties for mine safety violations in consecutive monthly payments of $102,442, after an initial $212,909 payment until the is paid in full.

The feds say Justice’s coal companies were late in making their December, January and February payments before not making their March payment at all, as of Thursday, despite requests to do so.

Justice and his adult children, Jillean L. Justice and James C. “Jay” Justice III, were controllers for mines for which there were more than 500 delinquent mine penalties with a combined ending balance of more than $4.2 million, as of Oct. 1, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data that the Gazette-Mail obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Upon taking office in 2017, Gov. Justice said he would put his children in charge of his family’s business operations. The Secretary of State’s Office lists Justice’s son and daughter as directors of all five companies in the union and miners’ lawsuit. Jay Justice is listed as president of all five.

The governor has suggested in court proceedings and interviews since taking office that he remains familiar with his coal companies’ operations.

In 2019, Justice shared operational details with reporters about the Pinnacle mine preparation plant in Wyoming County that one of his companies had recently bought, less than 11 months after he recounted negotiations between his companies and Pinnacle Mining Co. at a settlement conference after his companies filed a federal lawsuit against Pinnacle for alleged negligent deviation from approved drilling plans.

The Justice family’s financial troubles spilled over into court repeatedly in the past year. In September, Justice said Bluestone Resources, one of his family’s coal companies, had offered Credit Suisse $300 million, and half the value of the Justices’ coal firms, to settle about $740 million in outstanding loans with the company.

The Justice family’s companies had been in talks with Switzerland-based Credit Suisse at least since May, after the downfall of London-based Greensill Capital, which loaned the family companies $850 million in May 2018.

Forbes removed the governor from its list of billionaires last year because of his debt.

“What Bluestone and the Justice family is putting retirees through, especially Pinkey, there’s no call for it,” Mullens said.

Pinkey has a bone density test in Morgantown early Thursday for which he and Cathy plan to make the four-hour trip from their Glen Fork log home a day early.

Cathy hopes the Justice coal companies stop adding to their medical stress. But she doesn’t count on it.

“I know they’re not going to listen,” Mullens said, choking back tears again. “That’s not them.”

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc

.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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