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Manchin: Health benefits fix ‘never would have happened’ without miners’ action

By Michelle Dillon

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Active and retired coal miners and their families, politicians and others gathered to talk about and celebrate Congress securing the health benefits of retired miners.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and United Mine Workers of America District 31 International Vice President Mike Caputo spoke at the “Keep the Promise to Our Miners” town hall Friday at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Fairmont.

“The United Mine Workers is hosting a town hall meeting for Sen. Manchin to let him hear concerns of the community,” Caputo said of the event. “(The UMW’s) role here today is to thank him for his leadership and for his efforts.

“It was because of his leadership and his ability to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan effort that 22,600 people now have health care that weren’t going to have it if this bill didn’t pass.”

A provision regarding the health care benefits of retired miners and their families was put into Congress’ $1 trillion 2017 fiscal year spending bill. The provision permanently funds the health care of retired miners whose benefits were set to expire this month, according to an Associated Press article.

The provision secured the health care benefits of about 8,500 retired miners and their families in West Virginia, as well as other miners and their families in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama, the article said.

In the article Manchin said that the cost of the retired miners’ healthcare benefits is estimated at $1.3 billon over a decade.

At the town hall, Manchin thanked Sen. Shelley Moore Capito R-W.Va., Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., President Donald Trump, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the West Virginia congressional delegation, and all the other Democrats in Congress for the work they did for this health care fix.

None of these people could have done this without the help of miners, Manchin said.

“These people (miners) here made it happen,” he said. “I was basically a voice for them. I was able to put a face to a horrific problem that we have in people’s lives and how it would affect them, by them coming down every week and talking to senators and Congress people on both sides of the line. It never would have happened without them.”

It took five years to get the issue of retired miners’ health benefits fixed, Manchin said.

He said the funding to cover the miners’ health care benefits is coming from the customs user fee. The funding should have come from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, he added.

The funding is not coming from general tax dollars or the treasury. It is a dedicated source of revenue that will pay for the miners’ health care benefits. This money is for all the miners who lost their health care benefits due to coal companies’ bankruptcies, he said.

“We hope the market’s strong enough for people working for viable companies who continue to pay what they’re supposed to pay,” Manchin said.

He and others are working on a plan to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future to other miners’ health benefits, he said.

Now that the health care benefits are fixed, the pension benefits of retired miners need to be fixed, he said.

The pension benefits of retired miners will hit rock bottom by around 2020 or 2022, Manchin said.

It would take about $2.3 billion to fix the pension plan if it is fixed now. If the government waits, the cost to fix the pension plan could double by 2020, Manchin said.

Manchin said he is planning on introducing a bill addressing the pensions. He has heard that the Teamsters Union is having similar issues with its pension. He is willing to sit down with the Teamsters to see if they can fix the issues together or if they need to do it separately.

“We’re going to get a fix for the pension,” Manchin told the miners at the town hall meeting.

If coal companies that are still viable, that have miners working, go bankrupt in the future then there could be this same problem in the future for miners. He wants to introduce a bankruptcy bill to get ahead of this issue now, Manchin said.

In the ’80s the bankruptcy laws of this country changed to the point that companies file bankruptcy, merge and then walk away from their liabilities. He wants to introduce a piece of legislation to prevent this from happening to miners and all union and non-union working people, Manchin said.

“It will prevent companies from shuttling their responsibilities and liabilities by walking away and filing bankruptcy,” he said.

Both a pension bill and a bankruptcy bill are needed to fix the problems facing miners’ benefits. Manchin is going to start working on these as soon as he can, he said.

During the town hall, Manchin also talked about his views on the House of Representatives passing an “Obamacare” repeal.

“That is inhumane what they did,” Manchin said of the bill passing. “The main purpose of all this is a tax cut for the wealthiest people in America”

The bill will give a $575 billion tax cut to the wealthiest people in America and make $800 billion in service cuts to the poorest people in America. This bill would allow states to opt out of the “Obamacare” requirement that insurance companies not deny coverage based on pre-existing condition.

The assumption by the Republicans is that if states op out of the requirement then the state will have to pay for coverage people with pre-existing conditions. Manchin does not believe the West Virginia Legislature would pay for that, he said.

Manchin said he wants everyone to work together to fix the private insurance market. “Obamacare” gave 20 million people health care for the first time, but it did not give them any instructions on how to use the health care. He thinks there needs to be more done to make health care better for everybody, Manchin said.

Manchin will also be hosting town hall meetings in Matewan, Oceana and Logan.

Email Michelle Dillon at [email protected].

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