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Benefits In Jeopardy For Retired Coal Miners


More than 22,000 retired coal miners could lose their health care and pension soon unless Congress takes action. The loss would be devastating for families and the towns they live in. Reporter Margaret J. Krauss of Keystone Crossroads reports.

MARGARET J. KRAUSS, BYLINE: Ed Yankovich office in Uniontown, Pa., could be a tiny coal museum - union posters from the 1970s, miner figurines, a lump of coal. Yankovich is a district vice president for the United Mine Workers. He says over years of contract negotiations, miners accepted smaller salaries in exchange for peace of mind.

ED YANKOVICH: We could have a lot more money in the mines, but we were worried about lifetime health care. So we negotiated lower wages so we could have lifetime health care. Now, for that not to be honored is wrong.

KRAUSS: Coal companies normally fund miners' health care and pension benefits, but some have gone bankrupt. While President Donald Trump has promised to revive coal, that wouldn't bring back companies that have already closed up shop. Without congressional action, 61-year-old Dave Vansickle could lose his health care benefits and most of a pension that reflects the 40 years he worked underground.

DAVE VANSICKLE: It's just a hard pill to swallow. I mean, all those years, it was promise, promise, promise, and through bankruptcy, everything's thrown away.

KRAUSS: Legislation would first shore up United Mine Workers' health care and then send any leftover funds to pensions. Like a lot of pensions, the United Mine Workers' fund took a hit during the recession, but the union says an infusion of cash now will ensure its long-term stability. Rachel Greszler opposes the legislation. She's a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. She says, yes, it's unfair that minors won't receive the benefits they counted on, but that's not the government's job to fix.

RACHEL GRESZLER: The issue is just where you draw the line. And I think that it has to be that these people are going to have to go to Medicare and the ACA, and that's tough.

KRAUSS: But the Heritage Foundation supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. Greszler says while the options available to miners might not be as generous, government-subsidized health care isn't going away. As far as pensions go, Greszler says it's dangerous to set a precedent of funding union pension benefits. Vansickle worries about what happens if they don't.

VANSICKLE: What a lot of people don't realize - there was so many coal miners in this area that if this legislation doesn't get passed, these people aren't going to have the money to spend. It will actually destroy communities.


KRAUSS: Trains of open coal cars roll through Waynesburg, Pa., at regular intervals. You can hear the rumble two blocks north at McCracken Pharmacy.

SCOTT ADAMSON: We still set on quite a bit of bituminous coal, and it's been a huge part of our economy. It's intertwined in everything.

KRAUSS: That's Scott Adamson. He owns McCracken Pharmacy and cares for a lot of retired coal miners. Adamson says he doesn't really want to think about what would happen to his patients or his town if the health and pension funds dry up. Across the country, the United Mine Workers sends more than a billion dollars in pension and health benefits to communities like Waynesburg. Retired miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone account for nearly half of the organization's pension fund. Those monthly checks pay taxes, buy food and other goods. In case his benefits disappear, Dave Vansickle is setting aside whatever he can for medicines and health care, but there's something he can't set aside.

VANSICKLE: You always think about leaving something to your kids - you know, a little bit of legacy - and I always wanted that. You know, I was going to have something for my children, but this is going to take that away. It's something.

KRAUSS: The bills to help fund miners' health and pension benefits have been introduced in the House and Senate. They're still in committee. For NPR News, I'm Margaret J. Krauss in Pennsylvania.

SIMON: Keystone Crossroads is a statewide public media initiative that reports on challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities. And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, we're going to delve into the nation's opioid epidemic. We'll talk to addicts and the man who leads the government's crackdown on opioids. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Margaret J. Krauss
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