Bill to save miners’ pensions, health care has powerful backers

COAL MINERS listen to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt during his visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., on April 13, 2017. The Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019, backed by Democrats and Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could save pensions and health care benefits for thousands of retired miners. – Gene J. Puskar/AP photo

Washington D.C. – Pensions and health care for thousands of retired mine workers could be saved by new legislation backed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019 is sponsored by 11 Democratic senators, mostly from mining states, and three Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The bill would protect pensions of about 92,000 current and future retirees plus continue health care for two groups – 12,000 retirees caught in the Murray Energy bankruptcy and another 1,200 from the recent bankruptcy of Westmoreland Coal and Mission Coal.

“With this one bill, the United States Senate has taken a giant, bipartisan step forward in keeping America’s promise to our coal miners and their families,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said.

Chief sponsors are the two senators from West Virginia, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, and McConnell.

“I am especially thankful for Leader McConnell’s support of this legislation,” Roberts said. “His voice on behalf of retired miners is critical, and I want to thank him on behalf of every retired miner in America.”

Co-sponsors include both Illinois senators, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Virginia’s Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, plus Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Doug Jones of Alabama, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. All are Democrats except Portman.

Roberts said the bill is the culmination of a long process.

“It has taken us more than nine years to get to this point,” he said. “Let us get this legislation passed as soon possible and finally provide some peace of mind to these retired American heroes.”​

The bill would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer money to the 1974 Pension Plan from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, which has more funding than needed to meet its obligations. Roberts has called for this transfer in appearances in this area.

The bill would also amend the Coal Act to include the two bankruptcies in miners’ health-care legislation passed in 2017, before the bankruptcies happened.

Even with its powerful supporters, time is short for the legislation. The bill was not included last week when the Senate passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open through Dec. 20.

“Although I voted to pass this short-term spending bill, I’m disappointed it did not include the Bipartisan American Miners Act,” Manchin said. “If we don’t pass this bill this year, 13,000 miners will lose their health care and 92,000 will see their pensions reduced to pennies. I will not let this happen. I will do everything I can to get this fix into the spending bill we’ll need to pass in December.”

The House has already passed two similar versions of the bill, so approval by the full Senate is what’s needed now.

“The pension benefits of all the men and women are at risk if Congress fails to act,” Capito said. “The average bill is $590 a month. These are not lavish benefits, but they are critical to our retirees.”

She said the plan would not have any effect on abandoned mine cleanups.

McConnell earlier blocked a Senate vote on the plan but says he has now explained its importance to President Trump.

“I am committed to working with him and my colleagues in Congress toward a solution,” he said. “The startling number of orphaned miners in the drastically underfunded pension plan presents an urgent crisis for entire communities of miners, retirees and their families.”

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