Thousands of retired miners, widows receive letters announcing end of health care benefits unless Congress acts

By Jeff Jenkins in News
WASHINGTON, D.C. — What thousands of retired coal miners and widows of miners have feared in recent months is now closer to reality after approximately 12,500 beneficiaries linked to Patriot Coal received letters this week telling them the fund that pays their health care benefits will be out of money at the end of the year.

The letter, released by the United Mine Workers Union Friday, came from the Patriot Voluntary Employee Beneficial Association.

“We’ve been working very hard not to have to send this letter out to retirees,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told MetroNews Friday. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point but here we are.”

The Patriot VEBA and funds like it face depletion while the union and others push Congress to approve a plan to fund the programs.

“America made them a promise 70 years ago: ‘You mine the coal that makes our country strong, and we will see to it that you have retirement benefits in your old age,’” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a news release. “That promise has been kept by Congresses and administrations led by Republicans and Democrats from that day to this one. This Congress and this administration have a responsibility to do so once again. This is a life or death matter for thousands in the coalfields.”

Congress is considering the Miners Protection Act to fund the programs. It was approved by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago. As proposed, annual transfers in additional funds would come from unspent money in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund until the benefit programs reach actuarially sound levels. Eligibility for health benefits would be extended to UMWA retirees who’ve lost those benefits following bankruptcy or insolvency of a coal company.

Supporters are hopeful the lame duck Congress will take up the bill. The possible insolvency affects 120,000 miners and their families including about 22,000 West Virginians. First up are the 12,500 beneficiaries of the Patriot fund, Smith said.

“This is not good news for them. This is going to cause a great deal of concern and worry in their households,” he said.

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito once again pledged their support for the legislation in a joint statement Friday.

“Together, we are putting all of our energy behind passing this bipartisan legislation before year’s end. We urge our Senate colleagues to recognize the uncertain futures facing our miners and join our efforts before it’s too late,” part of the statement said.

First District Congressman David McKinley also reacted Friday in a news release.

“The letter released today shows how urgent this is. Republicans and Democrats should come together and send a bill to the President as soon as we return from fall recess so that coal mining families can have peace of mind, knowing their benefits are no longer at risk,” McKinley said.

Five-thousand of the 12,500 letters that went out Wednesday were sent to West Virginia residents.