A dispute over fixing the health care fund of thousands of retired coal miners almost shut down the federal government in December. The solution was only temporary, and the issue is about to command Congress’ attention again.
That’s why a group of retired Kentucky miners headed for Capitol Hill this week to press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to fix the health care fund for more than 22,000 United Mine Workers of America retirees nationwide.
They face the same hardship as they did only a few months ago, that their benefits might end. On Wednesday, they began receiving notice that the benefits would terminate at the end of April.
“At this time, Congress has not taken the action needed to continue your benefits,” the notice read.
A group of coal-state Democrats sent a letter urging Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to tie a permanent fix, called the Miners Protection Act, to the nomination of Robert Lighthizer to be the U.S. trade representative. Lighthizer’s nomination is awaiting Senate confirmation.
“Our miners did everything we asked of them, and it is time that we uphold our end of the bargain and provide them with the permanent benefits they earned through a lifetime of work,” said the letter, dated Tuesday and signed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who introduced the Miners Protection Act, and a dozen other Senate Democrats.
The committee approved the bipartisan bill last year, but McConnell never brought it to the Senate floor for a vote.
While McConnell has offered his own bill to save the miners’ health benefits, Manchin’s bill also fixes a pension fund that even more retirees depend on.
Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, said the pension problem was critical, yet separate, and the Kentucky Republican “is currently focused on the pressing issue of securing the health care benefits for our retired coal miners, which are set to expire at the end of April.”
The pension and health care funds are on the brink because thousands of active union workers must support tens of thousands of retirees. Coal industry bankruptcies in recent years have reduced the contributions that coal companies are required to make to the funds.
McConnell promotes himself as a champion of Kentucky’s struggling coal communities, working with President Donald Trump and other Republicans to roll back regulations they say have contributed to the decline of coal mining and mine employment in Appalachia.
But such efforts have done little to help the region’s retired miners and their dependents, who’ve been living for months under the threat of losing the benefits they’d been guaranteed.
“We need a permanent solution,” said Ron Pauley of Lincoln County, West Virginia, who worked for 33 years in the mines before retiring from Patriot Coal. He’s part of a group of 22 retired union members who came to Washington this week to discuss the issue with members of Congress.
“This is a major problem for everybody,” said Charles Dixon of Pike County, Kentucky, who worked 15 years for Massey Energy and is one of nine Kentucky retirees scheduled to meet with McConnell on Thursday afternoon.
Sometimes it takes more than a meeting to get an influential lawmaker’s attention.
Last week, a man interrupted McConnell’s remarks to business leaders in northern Kentucky to ask him about the issue. The man was escorted out by police as members of the audience wearing business attire yelled for him to “sit down” or “get out.”
“I knew I would not have another chance to ask that question in any other venue,” said Donny Greene of Louisville, a member of Indivisible Kentucky, a group formed to oppose Trump’s policies and the lawmakers who enact them. “I am hopeful that something constructive comes out of this for the mineworkers.”
McConnell faced hundreds of protesters at three lunchtime events in Kentucky last week. While many of them were concerned about health care and the environment, others came to voice their dissatisfaction with how he’s handled the retired coal miners’ benefits issue.
“He has left the responsibility for his constituents at the door,” said Scott Goebel of Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that supports a transition away from a coal-based economy in the eastern part of the state.
The retirees who came to Washington this week said Congress needed to fix both problems, not just one.
“We’d most definitely rather have Manchin’s bill,” Dixon said.
“We made the money that’s in the fund,” said Gary Hastings of Du Quoin, Illinois, who worked for 31 years for Arch Coal.
He said the pensioners received no more than $500 a month: “You’re not talking about a whole lot of money.”
Pauley said it wasn’t just retirees and their families who depended on the benefits. “Those pension dollars are spent right there in those communities,” he said.
“It doesn’t go to the big cities,” Dixon said. “It goes into the cash registers of small towns.”
The miners are hoping they can sway McConnell, who earlier resisted efforts to deal with the issue. Thousands of retirees came to Capitol Hill in September to rally behind a permanent fix. While many coal-state lawmakers spoke at the rally, McConnell did not.
Still, McConnell was instrumental in getting the four-month extension on health care in December and he introduced the permanent fix in January.
“We’re hoping he can see our side of it,” Pauley said.