Retired coal miners still face uncertain future for health-care benefits

Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 32 years, eats his lunch while laying down on a man trip, a cart that shuttles miners underground, as he works a shift in a mine less than 40-inches high in Welch, W.Va., on May 11, 2016.
Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 32 years, eats his lunch while laying down on a man trip, a cart that shuttles miners underground, as he works a shift in a mine less than 40-inches high in Welch, W.Va., on May 11, 2016. AP

John Leach has spent the holidays wondering how he’d come up with nearly $400 a month to pay for health insurance.

Leach worked in Peabody Energy coal mines in western Kentucky for 23 years and, like all miners who belonged to the United Mine Workers of America, thought he was guaranteed a health care plan that would cover his family for life.

It was part of a pact made 70 years ago by President Harry S Truman, the union and the coal companies, and coal miners and their families have counted on it every year since.

“I worked at four different mines,” Leach said. “I got that speech four different times.”

Then in October, Leach was one of 12,000 retired coal miners who received a notice that their health benefits would end on Dec. 31.

Congress reached a deal earlier this month to extend Leach’s benefits through the end of April. But until lawmakers can agree on a more permanent fix, Leach and his wife, Rhonda, who live in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, face losing their coverage in four months.

“At the end of four months, we will have to get her insurance,” he said. “It’s really expensive.”

Leach said one of them will have to find a job at an age when many couples are retired. But that creates other complications. They have two disabled adult children who live at home and require around-the-clock care.

“Who’s going to want to hire somebody who’s almost 70 years old?” Rhonda Leach said of her husband. “It’s a mess.”

John Leach, 67, receives Medicare, and his retired miner benefit makes up the difference between what his health care costs and what Medicare pays. The plan also covers Rhonda, who at 60 is not yet eligible for Medicare.

Should they lose the benefit, they face the prospect of paying $160 to cover the “Medigap” for him, and around $200 to buy the cheapest plan for her that’s available on the federal health-care exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.

The out-of-pocket cost for the “silver plan” is capped at $7,150 in 2017.

Republicans in Congress have pledged to repeal that law, also known as Obamacare. Adding even more uncertainty, a pension plan that pays John Leach $698 a month is on the verge of going broke, which would leave the couple scrambling to pay other bills.

“There’s not going to be a lot of money left,” Rhonda Leach said. “Those policies are not cheap.”

But that could be avoided by approving the Miners Protection Act, a bill introduced in 2015 by Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. The bill has 26 cosponsors and was approved by the Senate Finance Committee in September. A similar bill has 87 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. Both bills enjoy broad bipartisan support.

Manchin and other coal-state lawmakers had pushed for the bill’s inclusion in the continuing resolution approved in December that will funds the government through April.

Their effort didn’t succeed, though it did raise the issue’s profile. Still, it’s not clear how quickly congressional leaders will take it up when Congress reconvenes next week. Members are sworn in on Tuesday.

“I’m confident that they’re going to work it out,” John Leach said.

The Leaches came to Washington in September as part of a group of 10,000 retired miners and their families who rallied for the bill’s passage. They were among a smaller group who were arrested for sitting down in a parking lot on the west side of Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers have known about the potential insolvency of the miners’ health care plan since 2012, when Patriot Coal first filed for bankruptcy.

While the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insures multi-employer pension plans like the one that covers retired coal miners, it does not protect their health-care benefits.

Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007, and the new company assumed health-care obligations for thousands of retirees, including John Leach. Like most of the Peabody retirees now covered by the Patriot plan, Leach never worked for a day for Patriot.

As part of Patriot’s restructuring plan, Peabody agreed to make a series of payments to support the health-care fund through 2017. However, Peabody itself filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and made its last payment to the Patriot health-care fund in October.

Working union miners have long contributed to the pension and health care fund through their paychecks. Now, there are only 10,000 or so active union miners left to support 120,000 retirees.

Lawmakers have proposed to fill the gap with interest earned on a federal fund that supports the cleanup and reclamation of abandoned mine sites.

Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican who’s the lead sponsor of the House version of the Miners Protection Act, said the legislation’s supporters will “hit the ground running” in the new Congress and “not stop until we have won the full measure of justice for our retirees.”

“Congress needs to understand that these are real people whose lives are at risk, with real health care issues and real dependence on their small pensions to survive,” he said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis