DIG­GING IN

Coal min­ers won’t let Congress for­get guar­an­tee

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

With lives lit­er­ally hang­ing in the bal­ance, Congress is headed to­ward an­other last-minute show­down over health care and pen­sions for re­tired coal min­ers — some of whom have vowed to re­main on Capi­tol Hill for 30 days to pres­sure law­mak­ers to act.

Fund­ing for re­tired min­ers’ health care will ex­pire April 30, giv­ing Congress roughly four weeks to set­tle on a so­lu­tion for the nearly 23,000 work­ers and wid­ows who face the prospect of los­ing their gov­ern­ment­guar­an­teed cov­er­age. It’s the sec­ond time in just four months that the de­bate has gone down to the wire.

Late last year, Congress passed a four-month ex­ten­sion of min­ers’ health care ben­e­fits — hardly the long-term so­lu­tion re­tirees and their al­lies were look­ing for.

“This sense of un­cer­tainty for se­nior cit­i­zens, es­pe­cially some of these older folks who frankly don’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on and why this is a prob­lem — it’s cre­at­ing a great sense of anx­i­ety out there,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica.

The bat­tle comes against the back­drop of Pres­i­dent Trump’s vow to re­sus­ci­tate the na­tion’s lag­ging coal in­dus­try. Over the past sev­eral weeks, he has taken a num­ber of ac­tions to re­duce fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions on min­ing and open more land to coal ex­plo­ration.

In the past, the pres­i­dent has voiced sup­port for tak­ing care of re­tired min­ers and their fam­i­lies, though the White House has yet to come out force­fully on the loom­ing health care cri­sis.

But law­mak­ers from coal-pro­duc­ing states are keep­ing the is­sue in the spot­light. Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat, met with min­ers and their fam­i­lies Fri­day and said the gov­ern­ment has a clear moral obli­ga­tion to do some­thing.

“How long did it take them to bail out Wall Street?” Mr. Manchin said, ac­cord­ing to the Charleston Gazette-Mail news­pa­per. “They started work­ing the same night the [fi­nan­cial] crash hap­pened. If you can bail out Wall Street in one day, can’t you at least take care of the obli­ga­tion to the United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica? Can’t you take care of the peo­ple that made this coun­try?”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has a stand­ing com­mit­ment to cover health care and pen­sions for re­tired min­ers. A string of high-pro­file coal com­pany bank­rupt­cies in re­cent years has left re­tirees and their fam­i­lies de­pen­dent on those gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees.

On Capi­tol Hill, vir­tu­ally every­one agrees that some­thing must be done, but there is deep dis­agree­ment on ex­actly how far-reach­ing the fi­nal leg­is­la­tion should be.

Mr. Manchin — along with a group of sen­a­tors from both par­ties — are push­ing the Min­ers Pro­tec­tion Act, which would of­fer long-term fund­ing for re­tirees’ health care and would in­ject money into a sag­ging pen­sion fund for min­ers. About 89,000 peo­ple draw from that pen­sion fund, and the UMWA says an­other 30,000 will be el­i­gi­ble once they reach re­tire­ment age.

While health care ben­e­fits ex­pire April 30, Mr. Smith said, the pen­sion fund won’t be “com­pletely out of money” un­til 2022. Lead­ing law­mak­ers want to ad­dress health care and pen­sions sep­a­rately, ar­gu­ing that there sim­ply isn’t the same sense of ur­gency with re­gard to the pen­sion fund.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can, has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to deal only with health care.

“Sen. McConnell is fo­cused on the press­ing is­sue of se­cur­ing the health ben­e­fits for our re­tired coal min­ers, which are set to ex­pire at the end of April. The pen­sion is­sue is a crit­i­cal yet sep­a­rate mat­ter,” said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.

In­deed, even pro­po­nents of the Min­ers Pro­tec­tion Act seem to be ac­knowl­edg­ing the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity that, with Mr. McConnell at the helm of the Se­nate, health care and pen­sions are un­likely to be bun­dled into one leg­isla­tive pack­age.

Sen. Rob Port­man, Ohio Repub­li­can, and Sen. Shel­ley Moore Capito, West Vir­ginia Repub­li­can, last week said they would con­tinue push­ing for the Min­ers Pro­tec­tion Act but made clear that they would back a more limited mea­sure if that is the only choice.

Both sen­a­tors are co-spon­sors of the Min­ers Pro­tec­tion Act.

“Sen. Port­man sup­ports fix­ing the health care is­sue if that is the only op­tion, but he is go­ing to con­tinue fight­ing for the full Miner’s Pro­tec­tion Act un­til it is signed into law,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Port­man.

Ms. Capito’s of­fice said the se­na­tor is en­cour­aged by Mr. McConnell’s leg­is­la­tion ad­dress­ing health care ben­e­fits and seemed to sig­nal that she would back the bill if it’s the only piece of leg­is­la­tion that comes up for a vote.

In the mean­time, Mr. Smith said, re­tired min­ers will re­main on Capi­tol Hill each day through April 30 to pres­sure law­mak­ers. He said the UMWA sup­ports a long-term health care fix but is try­ing to im­press upon Congress that push­ing off the pen­sions is­sue will cause a big­ger prob­lem down the road.

“If you don’t start putting money into it now, you need to put more money into it later,” Mr. Smith said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BUMPY ROAD: For the sec­ond time in four months, coal min­ers are fac­ing the prospect of los­ing health care cov­er­age and pen­sions as con­gres­sional de­bate goes down to the wire. An ex­ten­sion for fund­ing will ex­pire April 30.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Min­ers’ loom­ing health care cri­sis is in the spot­light thanks to law­mak­ers from coal-pro­duc­ing states.

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