Protecting Kentucky miners' health care benefits

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

One of the unfortunate legacies of the Obama administration has been its zeal for over-regulation, which has played a major role in closing coal mines and killing coal jobs across the nation. The impact on Kentucky coal country has been particularly devastating. To make matters worse, President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” has enjoyed the overwhelming support of Senate Democrats.

Because of this economic dislocation in coal country, I have heard directly from numerous Kentucky United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families who are worried about the future of their retirement benefits. During a recent meeting with them in my office, we discussed numerous challenges facing the coal industry.

But the most pressing issue to these Kentuckians was the impending loss of their health care retirement benefits at the end of this year. Because of the health risks sometimes associated with mining, robust health benefits are vital to coal miner retirees.

In the last eight years of the Obama administration, a number of coal companies have declared bankruptcy and coal employment has declined, further draining UMWA retirement plans. Without an end-of-the-year solution, health retirement benefits were at risk for approximately 3,000 UMWA retirees across Kentucky.

With my support, Congress has previously intervened twice to save health benefits for union coal-miner retirees. This time, I appealed directly to House Speaker Paul Ryan to include a solution to this health benefits problem in the government funding bill. While it was my preference to include a long-term solution, it was more important to protect the benefits for thousands of my constituents, than to risk any lapse in benefits by fighting for a broader provision.

Without my intervention, thousands of miner retirees and their dependents would be losing their benefits at the end of this year. With this legislation, miner-health benefits extend to the end of April, and I’m going to work with my colleagues to ensure they continue after that.

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 have an immediate and direct impact for a group in desperate need of help.

While some anti-coal groups have questioned my support for the coal miners whose jobs they’ve worked to destroy, I want to make it clear that my support for miners doesn’t hinge on one issue or a single piece of legislation. I have spent my career fighting to protect coal jobs and have been a fierce opponent to the regulatory onslaught we’ve seen from Obama, supported by many Senate Democrats.

As Senate majority leader, I’ve been fighting on behalf of our miners, and I look forward to continuing that advocacy and working with the Trump administration to provide relief to coal communities.

I will also work with President-elect Donald Trump to continue assisting struggling coal communities that have been hit with unemployment and poverty. Over the past several years, I’ve secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for more job training, economic development, infrastructure and reclamation efforts.

Last year alone, I helped secure $146 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, with $50 million reserved for communities impacted by coal layoffs. Further, I worked with Congressman Hal Rogers to support an Abandoned Mine Land pilot program, which provided $30 million to Kentucky in 2016 to reclaim AML sites and spur economic development.

Rogers has introduced similar legislation in the House that has a particular focus on reclamation. I look forward to a continued dialogue with him and members of the delegation to advance ideas that can help struggling regions in Kentucky.

For decades, Kentucky coal miners have kept the lights on in our country, and their interests will not be forgotten as long as I am a U.S. senator.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is Kentucky’s senior senator.