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Deadline Again Looms For Retired Coal Worker Health Benefits

Durrie Bouscaren/St. Louis Public Radio

After Congress extended the deadline for retired union coal workers and their families on the brink of losing their health insurance for four months, the group is again facing the loss of their coverage at the end of April.

In the meantime, a bill to use federal funds to maintain the benefits for about 22,000 former employees of now-bankrupt coal mines has not made it out of the Senate Finance Committee. Increasingly anxious retirees have written letters to their representatives, and are looking for other forms of coverage.  

“It’s astronomical for us,” said Bill Hull, 77, who worked 30 years for a strip mine run by Peabody Coal Company near Montrose, Missouri. “The medications that I would have to take almost exceed my pension.”

He wrote to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, who is a co-sponsor of the Miners Protection Act of 2017. Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, does not appear on the list of sponsors.  

In the final weeks of 2016, Congress passed a stop-gap measure to fund the benefits for four months, in the hopes that a permanent law could be passed in that time. Though U.S. bankruptcy law protects many private-sector pensions, health benefits are not included. But those benefits were always a crucial part of contract negotiations when Hull represented United Mine Workers Local 1122 to their employer.

“All those years that my wife and I raised our family and looked forward to retirement, that our health care would be covered,” Hull said. “We always thought we would have that, as a promise.”

Though he farms about 100 acres of soybeans and wheat, Hull said low commodity prices in recent years are making it hard to turn a profit. After a stroke in 2012, he takes several medications to maintain his health. His wife Earlene is a two-time cancer survivor.  

A cost estimate for the Miner’s Protection Act has not been prepared by the Congressional Budget Office.  

Last month, 13 Senate cosponsors wrote a letter to Finance committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asking to include the bill in the process to nominate Robert Lighthizer for U.S. Trade Representative.

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.     

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.