By Bill Estep
May 1, 2017 - Health benefits that were in jeopardy for more than 22,000 retired union miners and widows, including more than 3,000 in Kentucky, would be extended permanently under a deal announced Monday.
The fix is included in a measure to fund the government through the end of September, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a news release.
The House and Senate will vote soon on the budget measure The retirees’ health benefits were set to expire at the end of April without the deal because of troubles in the coal industry.
Coal-company bankruptcies and a sharp downturn in jobs have undermined funding for health and pension funds for retired UMWA members. There is less money going into the retirement pool.
“I recognize that the extension of health benefits for this group of retirees will not address all of the challenges facing every Kentucky miner or retiree, but I am proud that it will help address many of the health care needs of thousands of miners who fell victim to the steep downturn in coal production,” McConnell said.
The agreement does not address a looming crisis involving pensions for about 89,000 union miners that could run out without aid from Congress.
Still, union officials and supporters were pleased with the deal.
Steve Earle, a UMW official from Western Kentucky, said in the release from McConnell that 22,600 retired miners, widows and dependents across the country “can now live their lives without the anxiety of having their health care benefits cut off next week, next year, or at any time in the future.”
“This is a tremendous victory, and Sen. McConnell played a decisive role in making sure it happened,” Earle said.
McConnell said the legislation incorporated provisions from a bill he introduced early this year.
The money to pay for the continued benefits would come from a customs user fee on imports.
Sen Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said the cost of the benefits is estimated at $1.3 billion over a decade, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to Kentucky, states with significant numbers of UMWA retirees include West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Alabama.
UMW President Cecil Roberts said in a news release that many people in Congress worked to make the agreement a reality, including Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley, both West Virginia Republicans whom Roberts called “lions in this fight.” Roberts said U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers and Andy Barr, both from Kentucky, also played important roles.
However, it was a “decisive moment” when McConnell weighed in last year to support a permanent extension of benefits, Roberts said.
Roberts said it is important now for lawmakers to approve the bill and move on to preserve pensions for 89,000 retirees “who earned them in blood and toil.”
Roberts and others have argued that the longer Congress takes to deal with the pension issue, the bigger the hole gets.
Lawmakers had been wrangling for months over keeping union retirees’ health benefits in place. Senate Democrats almost forced a government shutdown in December over the issue before McConnell worked out a four-month extension.
McConnell had sought a one-year extension, but the House did not agree.
Miners have argued they are entitled to lifetime health and pension benefits under a 1946 agreement worked out under President Harry Truman to resolve a strike at a time when the country needed coal to fuel postwar economic growth.
“They aren’t asking for a handout or a bailout, just what they were promised,” said U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a West Virginia Republican, according to the Associated Press.
Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.