By MICHELLE DILLON
Times West VIrginian
FAIRMONT, W.Va. — A West Virginia politician is continuing the fight to protect the health care and pensions of retired miners.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., held a conference call with members of the press on Thursday to discuss the progress of getting the Miners Protection Act of 2015 passed in the Senate.
The purpose of the bill is to have funds transfered from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to cover shortages in the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan for the payment of retired miners’ health benefits and to pay pension benefits funded by the 1974 United Mine Workers of America pension plan, according to congress.gov.
Manchin spoke to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee Thursday morning, he said.
Alexander is a supporter of the 21st Century Cures Bill, a health-care bill. Manchin wanted the the Miners Protection Act to be part of the 21st Century Cures Bill and was very upset that it was not included in the bill, he said.
In September, when the Miners Protection Act was passed out of the House Finance Committee with a 18-8 vote, Manchin was sure that it would be added to a piece of legislation or would be introduced as a standalone bill. That has not happened, so now he and supporters of the bill are looking for the right vehicle for the Miners Protection Act, he said.
Dec. 9 is a deadline for getting the Miners Protection Act passed in the Senate. There are two reasons for this, Manchin said.
The House of Representative has to vote on a continuing resolution to keep the government open by Dec. 9. The Senate gets the continuing resolution from the House and has to vote on it, he said.
“Everyone says we can’t close the government down,” Manchin said. “I don’t want to close the government down. I don’t intend to close the government down, but I will use every vehicle I have possible to make sure the miners (act is addressed).”
As of Dec. 9, retired miners will have to start looking for other options for their health care. If the Miners Protection Act is not passed, then retired miners will lose their health-care benefits as of Dec. 31, Manchin said.
According to Manchin, 12,500 retired miners and their families will lose their health-care benefits as of Dec. 31, 2016. By February 2017, 3,600 more will lose their benefits, and by the end of 2017 another 6,500 will.
Most of those receiving the health-care benefits are widows, Manchin said.
Health-care benefits for miners is not the only thing Manchin is fighting for.
He is fighting for the pensions of retired miners, he said.
Next year the pensions will start going in a downward spiral, and they will have a hard time recovering.
Pension benefits are issued to 90,000 retired miners, Manchin said.
The health-care benefits and pension benefits of retired miners could be taken care of right now for $2.9 billion by using excess money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund. If the pension plan isn’t helped now, it will need $6 billion in the future to fix it, Manchin said.
Alexander told him Thursday and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told him Wednesday that they support the health-care portion of the bill but they have not been receptive to the pension portion, Manchin said.
Manchin asked for a guarantee that the Miners Protection Act would be included in the House’s continuing resolution to fund the government, but he will not know if it is included until Monday.
“I have a Democrat caucus that’s saying, ‘We’re willing to hold up the (continuing resolution). We’re willing to hold up in passing that, until the miners are taken care of,” Manchin said. “I am very much appreciative of that.”
Manchin has spoken to Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., about the continuing resolution. He told Manchin that there are many challenges they are considering with the resolution but that the Miners Protection Act is high on the priority list.
If the continuing resolution includes protecting the health care of miners, Manchin is still going to fight to get the pensions put in but he will have a hard time getting votes for that, he said.
If the health care of miners is not protected, a lot of the southern West Virginia clinics that are basically dependent upon the miners’ health care and the service clinics give and the reimbursement they get for that, will have a hard time keeping their doors open, Manchin said.
The federal government will save $519 million on health-care costs if the Miners Protection Act is passed. If it is not passed, miners would have to rely on such federal programs as Medicaid, Manchin said.
“From day one, this has not been taxpayer,” Manchin said. “The agreement that was made way back in 1946 was from the amount of energy that we produced, the coal. And there was supposed to be every company responsible and liable for making sure they paid into the pension and the health-care fund.”
In 1992 it all fell short because Congress passed bankruptcy laws allowing the coal companies to negate their responsibilities, he said.
“Congress created this,” Manchin said. “We should never be in this position. So for them to say now they want to walk away and we have no obligation or responsibility is absolutely, totally irresponsible.”
Manchin is hopeful that things are moving in the right direction and the bill will be passed, he said.
Miners will be devastated if the Miners Protection Act is not passed, Communication and Governmental Affairs Director for the UMW Phil Smith said.
“Coal miners have worked 25, 30, 40 years to provide the material that energized and built our nation,” he said. “In every contract negotiation they gave up money and wages so that they could have retirement benefits because they knew that their bodies would be in bad shape when they retired.
“They’ve earned these benefits, sometimes with their lives. The United States government made them a promise 70 years ago that cannot be wiped away by a bankruptcy judge’s order. Congress has repeatedly stepped up to the plate to live up to the government’s promises and all we’re asking is that it does so (now).”
There is House support for protecting the health-care benefits and pensions of miners as well.
Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., and 29 other House members from both parties sent a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Nov. 30 calling for immediate action on the coal health-care and pension protection act.
“The Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act offers a solution to an urgent problem facing the approximately 22,000 retirees whose health benefits will run out at the end of 2016 or in 2017,” the letter says. “Likewise, the bill also addresses the funding shortfall in the pension plan on which 120,000 miners and their families rely.”
The bill has 87 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, 47 Republicans and 40 Democrats. The Senate companion bill passed out of the Senate Committee on Finance in September on a bipartisan vote of 18-8. The bill has strong bipartisan support, the letter said.
“The Coal Healthcare and Pension Protection Act is a responsible, bipartisan solution that will prevent thousands of retirees from being hurt,” the letter said. “These men and women spent their lives doing the hard work that powers this country. They deserve peace of mind in their retirement years. We urge you to stand with these hardworking people and pass this bill before the end of this year.”
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