LEXINGTON, Ky. — Time is running short for retired coal miners and their spouses when it comes to federally guaranteed health care benefits. Without action in Congress, thousands of those aged workers will lose their health care benefits by the end of the year . The United Mine Workers of America said that is unacceptable.
“We want to let folks know this is a very important issue in the coalfields,” said UMWA Spokesman Phil Smith. “Thousands and thousands of people are going to be affected if Congress doesn’t do its job and act on this.”
Retirees from seven states will stage a rally Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky to raise the issue in the public’s mind. Legislation, sponsored in the Senate by both U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and in the House of Representatives by Congressman David McKinley aims to shore up the benefits, but so far the bill has languished on Capitol Hill.
“There was a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee back in March,” said Smith. “We’ve asked repeatedly for a vote on the bill in the committee to get it out on the Senate floor. That hasn’t happened and frankly we’re beginning to run out of time.”
Union leaders fear with the election coming in November the work of Congress will be abbreviated as they head home to campaign for reelection. They are compelling Congress to act on the measure before that happens and give the thousands of retirees some peace of mind.
“These benefits were promised to these retirees in 1946 and have been reaffirmed several times,” Smith explained. “This has been a bi-partisan effort by Congress and various administrations for 70 years.”
Amid coal’s downturn, numerous companies have gone into bankruptcy and the payments into the pension and healthcare plans have withered. Without backing from the federal government, which is supposed to be guaranteed when the coal companies can’t pay, the funds will become insolvent.
“We don’t’ understand why this can’t be a bipartisan effort moving forward,” Smith explained. “This isn’t about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about doing the right thing for these retirees.”
The Lexington rally is staged as a center point for miners coming from all over the country. Smith said it would be the first in a series of rallies until the pension and health benefits are secured through Congressional action.