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10/18/2004

Bush Administration wants to deny orphaned miners of health care

(From the Pittsburg Times)
Fix sought to stabilize retired miners' health plan

A fund to help retired coal miners meet their medical expenses has become ensnared in election-year politics, with one of the unions supporting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry charging the Bush administration with a failure to fix the fund.

Bush campaign and administration officials say the charge is false.

Earlier this year, the same union that made the claim -- the United Mine Workers of America -- publicly thanked the administration for its efforts on the fund's behalf and cited the rise of a bipartisan coalition to save the fund.

Hanging in the balance is the future of the federal Coal Act's Combined Benefits Fund, which pays medical bills for more than 10,000 retired western Pennsylvania coal miners and their survivors.

The CBF, created by Congress in 1992, merged the UMWA's 1950 and 1974 benefit plans. It uses the interest that accrues to the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, a pool of money generated by coal company fees and keyed to U.S. coal production, to shore up the plan's financial well-being. No tax dollars are involved.
The CBF was designed to stabilize the union's health benefit plans in the wake of declining revenues in the late 1980s.

According to the UMWA, a wave of coal company bankruptcies again threatens the fund.
The matter is complicated by the fact that the fund is attached to the federal mine reclamation program, which itself is ensnared in controversy. Authorization for both the CBF and the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund expired in late September. A congressional resolution is keeping the funds going.
Union and congressional sources expect a further extension when Congress returns after the election. A permanent solution appears to be many months away.

Last week, a UMWA press release said, "President Bush has had four years and a Republican majority in both bodies of Congress to try and find a long-term solution to the Coal Act's funding problems, but the president has offered no plan."

Mike Catanzaro, deputy director for energy policy for the Bush campaign, said, "We have offered a plan."
Jeff Jarrett, who heads the Office of Surface Mining in the Bush administration, echoed Catanzaro. The OSM administers the Combined Benefits Fund.

In February, the union hailed the lifting of a $70 million cap on interest transfers by the Bush administration, a measure supported by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Also in February, the UMWA publicly thanked the administration for extending to September 2005 a $190 million pilot Medicare prescription drug program.

The lifting of the cap and the Medicare program were part of the CBF reforms cited by Catanzaro.
Since 1992, $665 million of Abandoned Mine Reclamation interest has been transferred to the CBF to make up for shortfalls in the UMWA retiree health care plan. The lawmaker who proposed the creation of CBF 12 years ago, West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, now has proposed that a restriction on the use of the fund be lifted.

Currently, transfers to the CBF from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation fund are limited to paying solely for "orphaned" coal miner health care -- those retired miners whose former companies no longer exist. Rahall's legislation, introduced with Republican Rep. Robert Ney, of Ohio, would allow interest transfers to offset any CBF deficits in order to prevent reductions in coverage.

The proposal, known as Care 21, "is definitely a long-term fix to this financial crisis," Roberts said, "and we would encourage both bodies to pass the legislation."

Jarrett confirmed the Bush administration opposes Rahall's plan to permit interest proceeds to plug CBF deficits for "assigned" retired miners.

"That (change) is far beyond our ability to finance" with current revenues, Jarrett said.

Jarrett decried the "linkage" between mine reclamation and the UMWA health plans, believing they "should be separated (since) one doesn't have anything to do with the other."

"We don't object to making the payments" outlined in the 1992 legislation, Jarrett said, "but I get concerned when there's talk of using the (Abandoned Mine Reclamation) fund to solve additional problems."

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