Op-Ed

Keep the promise to retired miners, widows

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts, left, had his photo taken with one of the 3,500 current and former union coal miners who rallied in Lexington in June to push proposals to shore up union health and pension funds.
United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts, left, had his photo taken with one of the 3,500 current and former union coal miners who rallied in Lexington in June to push proposals to shore up union health and pension funds. cbertram@herald-leader.com

In December, Congress voted to extend life-saving health-care benefits for some 16,300 retired coal miners, their dependents and widows until the end of April. That includes some 3,000 in Kentucky.

These senior citizens were facing a Dec. 31 cutoff of the benefits they had been promised and have earned. The four-month reprieve they received was welcome news to them and their families. I want to thank those who were responsible for this, including Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

I noted his comments at the time in support of these retirees and I commend him for wanting to do more than just this four-month extension.

I appreciate that McConnell recognizes this is not the permanent solution that is needed. Indeed for some of these retirees, it only serves to prolong the anxiety associated with trying to plan for critical medical treatments and recovery. It once again puts into question their ability to keep getting the prescription drugs that keep them alive.

Last October, these retirees received a terrifying letter that their benefits would be cut off at the end of the year. Sometime in February, they will receive another one. If Congress kicks this can down the road for a few more months, they will get another one. When will this end? One can only hope that Congress does not intend to keep these seniors in a constant state of unsettled suspense for the rest of their lives.

And Congress must also act to address the looming crisis with respect to retired miners’ pensions. Failure to act in 2017 will likely lead to the insolvency of the UMWA Pension Plan, meaning the federal government will be on the hook for billions more dollars than if the problem were fixed now.

These retired miners are not asking for a handout. Their benefits were earned through a lifetime of dangerous, backbreaking work every single day. They provided the fuel that turns the lights on, keeps our homes warm and powers the computers and smartphones that are so integral to our everyday lives.

In return, their companies promised them retirement benefits. And for 70 years, our government has backed up that promise. But the recent tide of bankruptcies in the coal industry has allowed courts to wipe away promised benefits for tens of thousands of retirees. Now they are asking our government to step in and make good on its promise to them, just as it has time and time again.

Congress will be back in Washington, D.C. next week, moving to pave the way for a new administration with a decidedly different worldview, including focusing on revitalizing America’s coalfields and the coal industry.

Passage of the Miners Protection Act will be a tremendous first step to preventing further pain and suffering in a region all too familiar with both. And it will ensure that the billions of dollars currently flowing into the coalfields for retired coal miners’ health care and pensions each year — including more than $100 million in Kentucky — continues to provide the economic base on which we can build a brighter future in Appalachia.

I look forward to working with McConnell and any other interested party in this critical effort to ensure that the promise these retirees earned is kept — in full.

Cecil E. Roberts is international president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Related: Commentary by Sen. Mitch McConnell, “Protecting Kentucky miners’ health care benefits”

  Comments