SPANISHBURG — Because he hauled coal underground for 30 years, Michael Ray was promised he wouldn’t have to carry this kind of load.
“When you see your wife crying there because we can’t get her medicine, it’s uncalled for,” Ray said.
Ray’s wife of 46 years sat across from him in the living room of their home in the Spanishburg area of rural Mercer County, nearly seven years after suffering a brain stem stroke that initially left her unable to walk or talk.
The scopolamine transdermal skin patch behind Loraine Ray’s left ear steadies her, keeping her nausea and vomiting at bay.
But Loraine, 71, said she had to go without any patch or daily Rybelsus medication for her diabetes for two weeks earlier this month because Michael, 65, lost his retiree prescription drug coverage.
“I get aggravated,” Loraine says quietly. “It gets me nervous.”
“Retirees shouldn’t have to face this all the time,” Michael says.
Michael is among many retired miners who say Gov. Jim Justice’s coal companies repeatedly have failed to provide prescription drug coverage they promised in contractual agreements with the United Mine Workers of America union at the end of 2016.
Some 250 to 300 recipients are impacted by recurring lapses in health coverage, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.
Retirees and their dependents began contacting the UMWA about unpaid medical and prescription drug bills in late 2017, according to the union, which has said retirees were forced to pay out of pocket for drugs, go without medical treatment and refrain from filling prescriptions because of inability to pay.
In a June federal court filing, the UMWA and four Justice coal company retirees said the companies had allowed a lapse in prescription drug coverage for the 10th time in eight-and-a-half months.
Retired West Virginia miners say health-jeopardizing lapses have persisted since.
“These senior citizens depend on their prescribed prescription drugs to maintain their lives,” Smith said in an email. “If they cannot count on a safe, reliable source for those drugs it not only causes needless anxiety, it puts their health at great risk. The company is not just legally responsible for making sure that doesn’t happen, it is morally responsible. It is failing to live up to that responsibility.”
Justice has said his coal companies are being operated by his adult children during his tenure as governor.
Prescription payments through a third-party administrator sometimes have been unavailable, said Steven R. Ruby, a lawyer for the companies. In those cases, he said, the companies have paid the cost.
Ruby said he could not explain the cause of repeated critical prescription health coverage lapses.
“I don’t know exactly,” Ruby said. “I don’t know what the issue is or the source of the interruptions.”
The UMWA, its retirees and their dependents say company reimbursements come too late for those who can’t afford to pay out of pocket for medication in the first place.
Their plight has prolonged a pattern of Justice’s coal companies failing to meet legal and financial obligations in place to protect their workers and the environment in which they operate.
“She needs a lot of medicine,” Michael said. “We depend on certain medicines, and they’re so expensive. That’s why you pay union dues into the United Mine Workers for years. I was hoping we’d have something to depend on.”
Behind the coverage lapses
Retirees say the Justice coal companies have not explained the lapses.
“They won’t answer that,” said Walker DeLong, 66, of McDowell County.
After a 36-year mining career, DeLong has driven 90 minutes to his Walmart pharmacy in Lebanon, Va., only to learn he lacked coverage for back pain and other medications he was seeking.
“You never know when it’s good and when it’s not,” Michael Ray said.
The Justice coal companies repeatedly have agreed to abide by federal court orders to restore health coverage without further interruptions. But retired miners and the UMWA say the coverage failures always have resumed, sometimes in the same month.
UMWA officials have said in court filings retirees have been given no warning that drug coverage would be canceled.
The companies told the UMWA they were switching insurance carriers following complaints about unpaid medical and prescription drug bills in late 2017, the union wrote in a June 2019 letter to Justice’s Bluestone Energy Group, a corporate affiliate of the companies. In March or April 2018, new insurance cards were issued to retirees, the union said in the letter.
Members continued going without treatment and refraining from filling prescriptions after the new insurance cards were distributed, the UMWA said in the letter, reporting some members learned from their insurance provider that their claims were covered but the companies’ self-funded account lacked money to pay the bills.
The letter surfaced as a court filing in a federal lawsuit the UMWA and four retired miners filed in August 2019 against Justice Energy Company, Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal Corporation, Double-Bonus Coal Company and Southern Coal Corporation.
In March, the two sides reached an agreement to resolve the lawsuit.
But less than six weeks later, the union and the retired miners — James E. Graham II of Monroe County; Dennis Adkins of Jacksonville, North Carolina; Roger Wriston of Fayette County; and David Polk of Wyoming County – told the federal court the companies still were failing to provide drug coverage.
In June, the companies agreed again to provide uninterrupted health care and drug coverage. That accord was less than two weeks old when the union and four retirees submitted another filing June 16 alleging the companies had allowed a lapse in drug coverage for the 10th time in less than nine months.
Keystone Service Industries retiree Harry Gregory of Mercer County said in a declaration the union and four miners filed in federal court in May that interruptions in his drug coverage had occurred about once a month since the beginning of the year, causing him and his family to put off buying some drugs, including one that cost $3,000 a month.
Andrew Lafferty of McDowell County, another Keystone Services retiree, said in a declaration filed in May that he and his wife put off buying some drugs due to regular coverage interruptions.
In the latest filing in July, the union and four retired miners withdrew their pending motion for a contempt order against the companies. They reserved the right to renew their motion if the companies failed to comply with the June court order requiring the companies to provide uninterrupted coverage as the companies had promised.
“We are still gathering information and will file [to compel uninterrupted health coverage] if this situation persists,” Smith said.
Coverage lapsed in September and was reinstated earlier this month for some recipients before it was dropped again, according to Smith.
The Rays and DeLong said their coverage was restored about Oct. 20. They’re bracing for the next lapse.
Ruby said in all cases of which the companies are aware they have covered or reimbursed retirees. He recommended retirees with uncovered or unreimbursed expenses contact companies directly.
“They believe they’ve taken care of all that,” Ruby said.
Michael Ray said calling the company had proved pointless.
“I’ve told them, ‘Would you please get a hold of me over my wife’s medicine?’,” Ray said. “They won’t ever return my calls.”
When company representatives become aware of a retiree who can’t get a prescription, Ruby said, they call the pharmacy and put the expense on a company credit card. By doing so, according to Ruby, they bypass The Health Plan, the Wheeling-based third-party administrator that Ruby says processes the companies’ retiree medical claims.
“To be clear, I don’t know exactly what the nature has been of these interruptions,” Ruby said. “And I’m not blaming the TPA [third-party administrator].”
The Health Plan could not be reached for comment.
Things not taken care of
Cathy Mullens’ voice rings full of hope when she thinks about how much better her husband Pinkey is doing these days.
Pinkey is in what his physicians call deep remission from leukemia.
Pinkey, 68, and Cathy, 62, make a four-hour trip from their Wyoming County log home to Morgantown for cancer care once every six weeks now instead of once every four weeks. He’s down to six or seven medications instead of the 13 or 14 he was taking just a few months ago.
“I like the new normal,” Cathy says. “And he does too.”
“I’m wonderfully blessed,” said Pinkey, who still has the energy to craft sheet metal roses and woodwork despite his bout with cancer — 14 years after retiring from the Double-Bonus Coal Company to cap a three-decade coal mining career.
But Cathy’s mood darkens when Pinkey’s recurring prescription drug coverage lapses cross her mind.
“We’re doing good other than the insurance,” she said. “That’s the main problem.”
Cathy holds Justice responsible for lapses of up to three weeks that have put Pinkey’s health at risk.
“He’s not a very moral man,” Cathy said. “That’s the biggest problem I have with him is he has so many things that he does not take care of.”
The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Claims the Justice coal companies failed to take care of miners extend beyond prescription drug coverage.
In August, UMWA retiree benefit plan trustees sued three Justice coal companies in federal court claiming they failed to pay monthly premiums for four years.
The trustees say the companies did not pay premiums totaling $78,954 from July 15, 2017, through Aug. 15. They say that caused the plan to not only lose income but incur administrative and legal expenses, constituting a violation of federal law — the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 — setting minimum standards for most voluntarily established retirement and health plans.
Nearly two dozen of the family’s companies agreed in April 2020 to pay roughly $5 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming they failed to pay mine safety fines.
Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors found nearly 2,300 violations at Justice-owned mines in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia over a five-year period ending in May 2019, according to the initial complaint in a 2019 lawsuit by the feds.
Justice-controlled mines received nine citations for conditions unsanitary enough they could have contributed to coronavirus from March through December 2020, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data. The citations composed nearly a fourth of all those issued in West Virginia during that span.
The data were uncovered through a Gazette-Mail request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Justice-controlled Nufac Mining Company’s No. 57 Mine, an underground mine in McDowell County, was cited in November 2020 for lacking sanitary facilities near the mine. Regulators assessed Nufac a $448 fine.
The agency lists the company as delinquent in paying the fine.
Justice-controlled mines also received citations for unsanitary toilets, nonfunctional air conditioning and lack of a suitable bathing facility.
The Justice family’s financial troubles have spilled over into court repeatedly in recent months.
Last month, Justice said Bluestone Resources, one of his family-controlled coal companies, had offered Credit Suisse $300 million, and half of the value of the Justices’ coal companies, to settle about $740 million in outstanding loans with the company.
The Justice family’s companies had been in talks with Credit Suisse at least since May, after the downfall of British-based Greensill Capital, which loaned the Justice family companies $850 million in May 2018.
Forbes removed Justice from its list of billionaires earlier this year because of his debt.
“He does not pay his bills, period,” Cathy Mullens said. “He lives off the back of his employees.”
Upon taking office in 2017, 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 James, or “Jay,” and daughter Jillean as directors of all four companies in the union and miners’ lawsuit over prescription drug coverage lapses. Jay Justice is listed as president of all four.
Justice III bought a house from golf great Bubba Watson last year for $2.5 million — hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the appraised value of the property located at The Greenbrier resort, according to county real estate records. That was less than a year after Justice III conceded in a defense filing that Bluestone Industries Inc. bounced checks to nearly 100 employees, including Justice III.
Earlier this year, Justice III purchased the Greenbrier Sporting Club for $2.75 million from basketball icon Jerry West, according to county real estate records.
That doesn’t sit well with Cathy Mullens, who wants to see the Justice coal companies follow through on the financial and legal commitments they made to take care of her husband.
“Go pay millions of dollars for some sports player’s house,” Mullens said. “But pay your other bills first.”
The Justice Energy Company, Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal and the Double-Bonus Coal Company agreed in collective bargaining in 2016 to provide UMWA retirees prescription drug coverage.
That agreement was slated to expire at the end of 2021. Smith said the union does not comment on ongoing negotiations.
Having to deal with it
Miners decrying a lack of reliable health coverage through Justice’s coal companies have watched the governor present himself as a guardian of the state’s health during COVID-19 media briefings.
“You turn the TV on, 5:00, 6:00, 10:00, 11:00, and starting back up in the morning at 6:00, you’ll see him on there. ‘Me and Babydog want you to get your shot,” DeLong said, mimicking Justice’s pleas for West Virginians to get vaccinated for the governor’s English bulldog. “I don’t watch a lot of it. Like he cares about stuff. He ain’t worried about nothin’.”
Michael Ray tries to stay positive.
“If you’re not careful, when you get frustrated, you’ll say things,” he said softly, Liberty denim bib overalls covering his formidable 300-pound frame as he sat in his living room chair.
When Michael’s mind circles back to his wife crying over losing prescription drug coverage, his voice softens further still.
“That’s what really got me going,” Michael says. “It’s just so aggravating. You shouldn’t have to deal with it. But you do.”