Congress this week will vote on legislation to offer permanent health care benefits to more than 22,000 retired coal miners, ending a lengthy standoff on Capitol Hill that had left the retirees caught in the middle of a political fight and unsure about their future coverage.
The agreement, reached as part of the broader federal spending plan hashed out on Sunday, is expected to pass both chambers of Congress easily, as lawmakers from both parties were unwilling to let benefits lapse.
The federal government 70 years ago agreed to cover the costs of pensions and health care for retired miners, and that promise — known as the Krug-Lewis agreement and negotiated by then-President Harry S. Truman — has become especially valuable in recent years as numerous coal companies have gone bankrupt.
But the deal does nothing to address pension funds for retired miners, which likely will run out of money sometime early next decade.
Senators of both parties had pushed legislation that would have poured money into both health care and pensions, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood in the way of such a measure, favoring a bill that dealt only with medical coverage.
Members of Congress, while grateful for the last-minute health-care agreement, made clear that only half of the problem has been solved.
“President Truman recognized the vital role our coal miners played in our country’s success and he believed their hard work earned them guaranteed health and pension benefits. This agreement has always been a sacred bond between worker and country, and I am more determined than ever to fulfill our whole obligation and secure retired miners pension benefits as well,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat.
The United Mine Workers of America in recent months has put unprecedented pressure on Congress to come up with a permanent solution.
Retired miners have been on Capitol Hill virtually every day for the past six weeks, urging a fix to both health care and pensions. Congress last December passed a four-month extension, the latest in a lien of short-term fixes that did little to ease retirees’ fears about their future.
In his own statement, Mr. McConnell acknowledged that the deal doesn’t address the looming pension crisis. He also said Congress’s responsibility to care for retired miners is more important than ever.
“I recognize that the extension of health benefits for this group of retirees will not address all of the challenges facing every Kentucky miner or retiree, but I am proud that it will help address many of the health care needs of thousands of miners who fell victim to the steep downturn in coal production,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Mr. McConnell earlier this year had been pushing a health-care-only bill, and prominent senators — among them Rob Portman, Ohio Republican — told the Washington Times they were willing to support such a measure if necessary.
While similar legislation had been introduced in the House, there seemed to be much less of an appetite in that chamber to deal with the problem, though lawmakers and aides all along stressed there was little chance of Congress letting health benefits expire.
“The announcement of a permanent fix is great news for all of the hardworking miners and family members who have been constantly worried about losing the health care benefits they earned,” said Rep. David McKinley, West Virginia Republican who introduced the health care bill in the House. “For six years, we’ve been leading this fight and I am pleased to see we are about to cross the finish line. Coal mining families deserve peace of mind and know that their healthcare benefits will no longer be threatened and I’d like to thank the leadership in both the Senate and the House for addressing this permanently.”