Thousands of retired miners in seven states will lose their health care coverage by the end of the year – unless Congress passes the Miners Protection Act, Senate Bill 175 and House Resolution 179 by the end of this month.

The measure would secure retiree health care benefits for those retirees whose companies declared bankruptcy in 2012 and 2015 – Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and Alpha Natural Resources. It would also preserve the long-term health of the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund – a provision which has rankled some conservative members of Congress.

A "hard, dirty, gruesome job"

Through decades of contract negotiations, mining companies promised lifelong health care benefits in exchange for lower wages for miners. The coal industry’s decline has resulted in a number of companies declaring bankruptcy, leaving retired miners in the health care lurch.

“It is a hard, dirty, gruesome job, but we always lived with the promise and the thought that we would have health care and pensions for life,” said Robert “Bob” Cox, who worked underground for 35 years. “It was what we looked forward to, because you got to have something down there to look forward to or you won’t go down there every day.”

Cox – who is featured on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) website, is also concerned about the effect on his small town of Beaver Dam, Kentucky, if 22,600 retirees and their dependents lose their health care at the end of April. “It would affect everyone in the community,” Cox said. “The drug stores, grocery stores, hospitals; they rely on business from these retired miners.”

Cox contracted coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease, as a result of his work in the mines. “I know so many people who are in a lot worse shape and are even older than I am, and their whole lives depend on their medical care and their pension,” Cox said.

About the bill

The previous version of the Miners Protection Act, S. 1714, received a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on March 1, 2016. Click here to see a video of UMWA President Roberts’ testimony at that hearing.

S. 1714 was favorably reported out of the Senate Finance Committee by an 18-8 vote on Sept. 21, 2016. Click here to see a video of the Committee debate and vote on the legislation.

On Dec. 9, 2016, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution that funded health care benefits only for a period of four months, through April 28, 2017. The UMWA had asked Senators to vote against a “cloture” motion to bring this bill to the floor, which requires 60 votes to pass. The motion passed 61-38. Click here to see the record of that vote in the Senate.

In addition to the Miners Protection Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced legislation that would preserve retiree health care benefits but does not address the pension issue. That legislation is S. 176.

Click here for a list of the co-sponsors of S. 175, and click here for a list of the co-sponsors of H.R. 179.

The measures to protect miners’ health care are sponsored by two coal country legislators, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.).

The UMWA is urging people to contact their representatives in Congress and tell them to pass S.175 and HR179.