Retired coal miners who lost health care benefits as a result of bankruptcy – including many who have black lung disease – have a shot of getting those benefits extended, under bi-partisan legislation introduced today in the U.S. Senate.

Introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W. Va.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the measure would extend promised health care benefits to some 11,000 retirees, dependents and widows who lost their company-paid benefits as a result of the 2012-13 bankruptcy of Patriot Coal.

Recession, industry changes have hurt funds

The bill would also ensure the long-term solvency of the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which is critically underfunded as a result of the 2008-09 recession and a dramatic drop in employer contributions to the plan as the number of working coal miners has been slashed in recent years.

The Senate bill is a companion to H.R. 2403, which was introduced in May by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), and has already attracted a bi-partisan list of 34 co-sponsors. Similar language was also included in the budget submitted by President Obama to Congress in February.

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said many of the retirees have black lung and other occupational diseases and live with chronic pain from injuries sustained in the mines.

"A matter of life or death"

“There are literally thousands of retirees and widows throughout America's coal-producing regions for whom this legislation is a matter of life or death," Roberts said. "Through no fault of their own, they are in critical danger of losing health care benefits they earned though a lifetime of dangerous, backbreaking work. This legislation would preserve those benefits, and ensure that they have the dignified retirement they deserve."

"Sen. Manchin, Sen. Capito, Rep. McKinley and all the co-sponsors of this legislation have stepped up and made it clear that they care about what happens to these retirees and widows," Roberts said. "I appreciate their support very much, and I appreciate the White House support as well. They all understand that this legislation is the most effective way to solve this problem.

Less expensive in the long run

"In fact, in-depth actuarial analysis demonstrates this legislation is less expensive in the long-term for the government than doing nothing, because of the devastating impact on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation if the 1974 Pension Plan becomes insolvent," Roberts said.

"We are faced with a rising tide of bankruptcies and other economic shocks to the coal industry," Roberts said. "This legislation can't wait. More than 100,000 senior citizens across America are depending on this bill to pass. We must keep America’s promise to them.”