By WENDY HOLDREN
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Two retired coal miners shared their appreciation Monday afternoon of the agreement reached between U.S. Senators, Congressmen and the White House — an agreement creating a permanent solution to fund health care benefits for retired miners’ and their widows.
The funding solution, which draws funds from customs user fees already being collected, will be voted on this week by the House and Senate, and it is expected to be signed into law by the end of the week.
Joe Reynolds, who retired in September 2009 from the mining industry after 36 years, said families across southern West Virginia and Appalachia depend on these benefits.
“You can’t put a price tag on how important that is for a family,” Reynolds said. “If you’ve spent your life paying into something and working for something — and that’s really one of your main reasons for being there aside from your love of the mining industry — these pensions and health care benefits, it’s everything you’ve worked for.”
While no agreement is currently in place for pensions, lawmakers from West Virginia shared their promise Monday to continue working toward a solution.
Brett Dillon, another retired coal miner, said he’s looking forward to a peaceful night’s sleep for himself and others who have been concerned for several years about the potential loss of their health care benefits.
“It’s an important day for peace of mind,” said Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., as he stood alongside Reynolds and Dillon. “Our retirees and widows can go to bed tonight and rest easy knowing they won’t lose their benefits tomorrow.”
In 1946, the Krug-Lewis agreement was established — a promise that retired coal miners would receive health and pension benefits.
“It was a promise that said for our miners: you go in, you put your life on the line, your government is going to be there for you,” Jenkins said.
Layoffs and bankruptcy filings of many coal companies left the benefits with an uncertain future, but lawmakers have been working to ensure their continuance.
“I have heard from countless mining families worried about losing these crucial benefits,” Jenkins said. “These miners worked their whole lives to make our country truly great, and they deserve these hard-earned benefits. They aren’t asking for a handout or a bailout, just what they were promised. Their voices have been heard loud and clear, and we are keeping the promise.”
In a release, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he has been working side-by-side with the United Mine Workers of America and West Virginia coal miners to keep this promise.
For years, Manchin has proposed legislation, the Miners Protection Act, as a long-term solution for both miners’ healthcare and pensions.
The Protection Act would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency. It would also make certain retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1993 Benefit Plan.
But in October 2016, Manchin’s bill was not passed and more than 16,000 coal miners and their families received a letter stating their health care benefits would end Dec. 31. At the last minute, a four-month extension was passed by the Senate. Then again, on March 1, 2017, more than 22,000 miners receive another letter stating their benefits would be terminated at the end of April.
“Congress went over the deadline and passed a one-week extension in order to come up with an agreement to pass a long-term healthcare solution,” the Manchin release said.
While Manchin is thankful for the agreement, he stands determined to ensure miners’ pension benefits, too.
Referencing the Krug-Lewis agreement, Manchin said, “President Truman recognized the vital role our coal miners played in our country’s success and he believed their hard work earned them guaranteed health and pension benefits. This agreement has always been a sacred bond between worker and country, and I am more determined than ever to fulfill our whole obligation and secure retired miners pension benefits as well.”
Manchin said the 10-year cost to fund health care benefits for mine retirees and their widows is more than $1.3 billion, which will be offset by customs user fees, the fees paid on goods that are brought into the country.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also said protecting health care benefits for miners has been a top priority for her, and she is pleased the agreement has been reached.
She said she’s sure the pension issue will be revisited, but for now, health care funding was priority, as it was in much deeper trouble.
“Health care really was where the greatest need and greatest sense of urgency was.”
While the lawmakers said President Trump has indicated his support for the bill, the retired miners, Reynolds and Dillon, said they’ll feel better once it’s actually been signed. Next, they’ll continue the fight for their pension benefits.
Dillon said, “It might be a long and hard fight just like this one, but we won’t give up.”
See more from The Register-Herald