WASHINGTON, D.C. — United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts urged members of Congress Tuesday to get moving on legislation aimed at shoring up the dwindling healthcare benefits and pension funds for retired members of his organization.
Roberts testified as part of a wider panel before the U.S.Senate Finance Committee about reforms to multi-employer pension plans. Specifically aimed at coal miners is a bill sponsored by both U.S.Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV)
“It’s my belief there is broad support here to fix this. This is a bi-partisan bill not only in the United States Senate,but a bi-partisan bill in the House of Representatives,” Roberts told committee members. “For one time we have bi-partisanship here and it’s s struggle to figure out why we can’t move from point A to point B when everybody says this is the solution. ”
Retired miners and their widows face a loss of their healthcare coverage by the end of this year unless Congress acts according to Roberts who added, by the end of 2017 their pensions will be in jeopardy as well. Roberts told the committee there were three ways the issue could be resolved. The first is inaction by Congress which would throw the pension fund into insolvency and cost taxpayers more than $4 Billion. Another option is the multi-employer pension reform act which Roberts told the committee would cost around $3 BILLION. He suggested however the Miners Protection Act sponsored by Manchin and Capito would come with a $2 Billion dollar price tag.
“If you’re very much concerned about taxpayers’ money you should pass this bill. If you’re very much concerned about pensioners, you should pass this bill. If you’re concerned about healthcare you should pass this bill,” Roberts said. “Every other way that’s been suggested is pretty bad and more costly to fix this.”
Roberts raised another part of the debate which is not as well known in the halls of Washington DC, the economic impact on the region from the legislation.
“There’s a billion dollars a year that flows into the most depressed areas and hard hit areas of our economy, in Appalachia from the health and retirement funds. If these plans collapse then we lose another billion dollars,” he testified. “We’ve lost 25,000 jobs in the coal mining industry in the last three or four years, we’ve been dealing with bankruptcy after bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and we’ve got fewer and fewer people paying into these plans and more and more people are at risk of losing their healthcare.”
The passionate words of Roberts weren’t lost on committee members.
“There is a serious risk that thousands of miners are going to lose their health benefits by December of this year,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Wyden admitted he isn’t from a state that mines coal, but he’s familiar with small towns back in his state which have felt the impact of the loss of a single resource economy and says the situation is no different in his state than West Virginia or other coalfield states.
“I’ve done my best to advance legislation introduced by Senators Capito and Manchin,” said Finance Committee Chairman Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT). “Which, given the already low pension payments, the Obama Administration’s war on the coal industry, and the depressed state of the economy in most of coal country is in my view the best option for us. I plan to continue that effort.”
“The Miners’ Protection Act is a fix,” said Manchin. “It’s a fix that works not only for the miners, but also for America.”