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This is a Promise That Must Be Kept

UMWA President Cecil Roberts editorial published in the April 25, 2005 Charleston Daily Mail

This is a Promise That Must Be Kept
The AML Fund and Retired Miners' Health Care

By Cecil E. Roberts, President, United Mine Workers of America

The Daily Mail's editorial of April 18 ("Reclamation must be first") deriding the use of interest money from the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program to help fund health care for retired miners and their widows can only be seen as one of two things: either a shocking ignorance of the facts with respect to the decades-old federal government responsibility for this program, or a deliberate attempt to mislead the Daily Mail's readers about the use of the AML Fund and the interest it earns.

Just so everyone understands what the issues are, let's review the facts about health care for retired miners and their widows:

In 1946, President Harry Truman witnessed the signing of a contract between the federal government and the UMWA that promised coal miners and their surviving spouses would receive health care after they retired. This was some small compensation for the tremendous loss of life and limb miners suffered as they provided the fuel for America's basic industries, heat for millions of American families, and energy for the vast majority of America's homes and businesses.

In 1990, Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush and current Senator from North Carolina, established a commission that looked into the government's responsibility for retired miners' and widows' health care. The commission determined that "retired miners are entitled to the health care benefits that were promised and guaranteed them, and that such commitments must be honored."

In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed the Coal Act with bipartisan support, and President George H.W. Bush signed it. The Act established the UMWA Combined Benefit Fund (CBF) for the oldest retirees and designated interest from the AML Fund as one source of financing.
However, many more coal companies have gone out of business since that time. That, coupled with the skyrocketing costs of health care over the last decade, has meant that the contributions from current coal companies required under the Coal Act are not adequate to provide the promised benefits to retired miners and their widows.

Now let's look at some facts about the AML Fund that the Daily Mail chose to ignore:

Congress created the AML Fund in 1978. It didn't authorize the AML Fund to accrue interest until the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, Congress allocated that interest to pay for the promised health care of retired miners and widows.

Congress historically has not appropriated the amounts that are collected each year in AML fees, which is why the AML Fund assets have grown. This is not something that occurred after the Coal Act was passed, but has been the case since the program's inception.

Congress recognized in passing the Coal Act that keeping promises to abandoned coal miners was equally as important as cleaning up abandoned mine lands. It chose to use interest on the AML Fund because it believed that fees collected from the coal industry were an appropriate source of funds to pay for coal industry retirees.

Congress has stepped up and delivered on America's promise to its coal miners. Were these "bail-outs," as the Daily Mail would have us believe? Not hardly. They were a fulfillment of a nearly 60-year-old promise by our government. The UMWA appreciates that we still have a government that keeps its promises.

And unlike the Daily Mail, we recognize that our government has made an effort to find a solution to the continuing problem of funding retired miners' health care. The Daily Mail offers no alternative to this critical program that has pumped billions of dollars into the economies of West Virginia and surrounding states. Should we just cut it off, and let the tens of thousands of retired miners and widows-who have believed their government's promise for years-fend for themselves?

The result of that will be an even greater burden on our society as these senior citizens, most with debilitating diseases and taking multiple prescription drugs, turn to even more costly forms of public assistance for their health care. Or, they will just simply die.

The Daily Mail terms the Coal Act a "bailout" and an example of "bait-and-switch financing." The only bait-and-switch that has occurred is that coal miners were promised lifetime retiree health benefits, only to find in their twilight years that promise was in jeopardy of being broken. Congress stepped in to enact the Coal Act to ensure that the promise was kept. Rather than carping about the Coal Act, the Daily Mail ought to be singing the praises of a law that helps thousands of West Virginia citizens and provides a critical underpinning for medical care for everyone in the coal fields, not just retired coal miners and their widows.

Indeed, rather than pandering for union votes, as the Daily Mail suggests, Reps. Cubin, Rahall, and all the other Representatives and Senators who support the current legislation are once again doing the right thing and responding to the urgent needs of their constituents. That's called democracy, and it's good to see it in action.

Source: UMWA


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