CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A group of Democratic senators is asking congressional leadership to pass legislation permanently funding health care and pension benefits for retired coal miners as discussions continue in regards to preventing a government shutdown.
U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Doug Jones of Alabama; Mark Warner of Virginia; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; and Tim Kaine of Virginia sent a letter dated Monday to leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
By 2022, 87,000 retired coal miners could lose their pensions if lawmakers do nothing, as well as 20,000 additional beneficiaries who have yet to draw their pensions.
Manchin said in July the bankruptcies of Westmoreland and Mission Coal could result in 1,200 workers losing their benefits by the end of the year.
“If we don’t take action now, these families in Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, Alabama, Colorado, North Dakota and New Mexico will begin receiving health care termination notices at the end of October,” the senators said Monday.
“Without congressional action to keep this from happening, they will spend their holiday season worrying about whether or not they will have to choose between their life-saving medications and putting food on the table,” they added. “After all they have done for our country, the least we could do is keep our end of the bargain, honor the commitments that were made, and show them that we are thankful for the sacrifices they have made for our country.”
Manchin, Kaine, Brown and Casey spoke on the Senate floor in July in favor of the American Miners Act, which would require the Department of Treasury to transfer funds to the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension plan, increase the limit on transfers from $490 million to $750 million, and extend health care access to coal miners whose employers became bankrupt in 2018.
The legislation would also restore the Black Lung Liability Trust Fund excise tax through December 2028.
Manchin and the five other senators introduced the bill in January. The Democratic caucus co-sponsored the bill during the Senate’s consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the vote was blocked.
The six senators also thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., for pushing House Resolution 397, which would allow for loans to certain pension plans in critical status.
The House passed the measure 264-169 in July; Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., voted for the resolution, while Reps. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., and Carol Miller, R-W.Va., opposed.
The House Natural Resources Committee is also slated to vote on measures funding health benefits and pensions for retired coal miners; McKinley sponsored the bill regarding pensions, House Resolution 935.
The six senators said despite the House’s efforts, the Republican-led Senate has not taken up any related legislation this year.
“Because this is literally a life and death issue for thousands of families across this country, we urge you to include a permanent solution for miners health care and pension benefits in the short-term funding package that will ensure the continued operation of the U.S. government beyond September 30th, 2019, and we stand ready to work together in a bipartisan way to keep our promises to these great American families,” the legislators wrote.
Congress will have to approve multiple appropriations measures before Oct. 1 to fund various government agencies and departments.