Lawmakers: Budget deal fixes retired miner health benefits

By MICHAEL VIRTANEN Markets Associated Press

More than 22,000 retired miners and widows whose medical coverage was set to expire this month will instead see that coverage extended permanently under the new congressional spending plan, West Virginia lawmakers said Monday.

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That provision, which resolves a longstanding congressional dispute, is in the $1 trillion-plus spending bill to fund most federal operations through September, according to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins.

The cost is estimated at about $1.3 billion over a decade, Manchin said. It will be funded by a customs user fee on imports, instead of the interest from the existing federal fund used to clean up old abandoned mines, he said.

"It's been a long time, over three years, we've worked on this, getting a permanent fix for all of our miners that have been left behind," Manchin said in a conference call Monday. "This is all miners who have been retired, their widows who've been worried about whether they'd have health care or not."

In West Virginia, about 8,500 retired miners and their families face loss of benefits if Congress does not act. Other states affected include Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama.

"I have heard from countless mining families worried about losing these crucial benefits," Jenkins said in a prepared statement. "They aren't asking for a handout or a bailout, just what they were promised."

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In 1946, President Harry Truman brokered an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America to guarantee miners' lifetime health and pension benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike by unionized workers

The agreement by Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate follows a series of short-term extensions of health care funding. Last year's budget deal was briefly stalled over the issue. Voting on the latest deal is expected later this week.

The miners' pension and benefit funds have been depleted by coal company bankruptcies.

"I don't see any pushback right now," Manchin said.

Similar federal support for pension benefits, which would affect thousands more retired miners, is not included in this week's 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, 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," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "I will continue to fight to provide relief for coal communities going forward."

The Kentucky Republican, who advocated for the permanent health care fix in December, believes the miners' pension issue will need to be addressed as part of a broader pensions reform, spokesman Robert Steurer said.

More than 3,000 retired miners, dependents and widows in Kentucky will have their health care benefits protected, according to the UMWA.

Manchin said the sooner they take care of the pensions the less costly it will be. "We're going to start working feverishly on that," he said.

West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who also pushed for the health care coverage, said the spending legislation includes help for West Virginia communities recovering from last June's floods. It also has support for rural economic development; more money for fossil energy research and development; higher funding to address the drug epidemic; and investments in other scientific research at the state's universities, she said.

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Associated Press writer Adam Beam contributed to this report from Frankfurt, Kentucky.