President Donald Trump pledged his support Wednesday for the rescue of a health-care fund for thousands of retired coal miners and their families, an issue that almost triggered a government shutdown in December.
Rep. David McKinley, R-West Virginia, raised the issue at a meeting of about 18 House Republicans Wednesday morning, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at the White House, a meeting called to discuss the Republican bill to replace Obamacare.
McKinley asked for Trump’s help in getting a permanent fix for the miners’ health care, and the president pledged to make a call to House Republican leaders.
“Today’s been a pretty big day,” the congressman said. “I’m waiting now to hear from the leadership in the House to see whether they’ll follow through with that. Because we don’t want something that’s just a short-term extension.”
There was no immediate reaction from GOP House leaders.
McKinley and other coal-state lawmakers have been pushing to save the miners’ benefits, which will lapse at the end of April unless lawmakers act.
“We’ve got to give people peace of mind,” McKinley said after a meeting with about 10 retired miners at his Capitol Hill office.
In December, Senate Democrats threatened to let much of the federal government shut down unless Congress voted on a similar measure. Instead, Republican leaders attached a four-month extension for the health benefits to a stopgap government spending bill.
“I think it’s unconscionable that our miners now for the second time this year that they might lose their health care,” McKinley said. “We can’t have that happen again.”
In January, McKinley introduced a House bill that would permanently fix the health care fund, which has been pressured by a decline in the coal industry and fewer active union workers to support a large number of retirees. The union miners were guaranteed lifetime health care as part of a deal between coal companies and President Harry Truman in 1946.
They include Shirley Inman of Madison County, West Virginia, who came to visit McKinley’s office.
Inman, 73, said that even though she receives Medicare benefits, the additional health coverage she receives from working more than 18 years in mining pays her deductibles and medications. Inman said she’s a breast cancer survivor and has problems with her neck because of an injury from operating a shovel bucket at the mine.
Like with many families in coal country, Inman said her father and brothers also worked in the mines.
Rick Ryan, of Alum Creek, West Virginia, said he and other retired miners weren’t asking for much.
“We’re asking for something we always had,” he said. “That’s why I stayed in the mines for 35 years.”
Thousands of miners’ widows also rely on the benefits.
“Quite frankly, they’re scared to death,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. “They shouldn’t be.”
McKinley said he’d try to achieve a commitment from Republican leaders to get an early vote on the bill to avoid any last-minute efforts to save the benefits.
“We’re very close,” McKinley said.