United Mine Workers retirees are celebrating a permanent fix for health benefits secured in the federal spending agreement Congress reached over the weekend. However, the deal left them with more work ahead to shore up faltering pension funds.
Coal retirees have been fighting to secure benefits for nearly five years. With benefits set to expire at the end of April, the omnibus spending bill agreed upon by Congressional negotiators secured healthcare funding for more than 22,000 retirees and beneficiaries.
UMWA communications director Phil Smith called it a huge relief.
“It feels indescribable to those retirees who are on the verge of losing their benefits that these things have been preserved and will go forward in the future,” he said.
Lawmakers involved in the negotiation estimated that shoring up health benefits will cost approximately $1.3 billion. The money will likely be redirected from interest on fees the mining industry pays into a fund for reclamation of abandoned mine lands.
In remarks from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took credit for finalizing the deal.
“I recognize that the extension of health benefits for this group of retirees will not address all of the challenges facing every Kentucky miner or retiree,” McConnell said, “but I am proud that it will help address many of the health care needs of thousands of miners who fell victim to the steep downturn in coal production.”
Retired union miners say the pension and health benefits were guaranteed for life, dating back to an agreement with the federal government first struck in the 1940s and renewed several times by Congress.
The UMWA’s Smith said the union is at work on solutions to the pension problem and he hopes to see some progress by the end of the year. There are 89,000 retirees depending on union pension programs, and a wave of bankruptcies in the mining industry weakened many pension funds.
Legislation favored by a bipartisan group of coal country lawmakers would have secured both health and pension funds together. However, the negotiations over the spending bill split the health and pension benefits.
At an event in late April, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, acknowledged that pensions would not be part of the spending deal.
“We’re kicking the can down the street on the pensions,” Manchin said. “We’ll come back and fight another day.”
As with the health benefits, federal protection for pensions enjoys bipartisan support. West Virginia Republican Congressman David McKinley, who chairs the Congressional Coal Caucus, said the win on health benefits does not mean the effort is done.
“While this development on healthcare is welcome news, we must continue the fight to protect coal miner pensions. I look forward to leading this bipartisan effort in the House,” McKinley said.