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Ongoing Battle for Retired Miners' Benefits

Public News Service

Legislation to protect healthcare and pension benefits for around 120,000 former coal miners and their families is stuck in the U.S. Senate, where Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell is in charge. The majority leader has kept the Miners' Protection Act from coming to the floor.

Steve Brewer worked underground in Pike County for 21 years, until he broke his back in a mining accident. Brewer said it's time for Congress to honor a 70-year-old promise guaranteeing miners lifetime benefits.

"We're very concerned about it," said Brewer. "On a scale between one and ten, we're at a ten. If you're taking more money out than what you're putting in, or what you've got in, sooner or later that money will run out."

Brewer said he and his wife Sharon, who worked in a coal-company office, rely on their full medical coverage, especially as they age. McConnell said he is protecting coal miners by fighting environmental regulations.

Brewer said McConnell is not living up to a deal cut by the federal government with the miners' union in 1946, which averted a lengthy strike. Brewer said the deal promised "cradle to grave" benefits.

"He's the first Senate majority leader that's ever let the coal miners down," he added. "But yet, he'll say he's for coal miners, but how can you be for coal miners when you won't take care of your obligation?"

The Miners' Protection Act, which has passed the Senate Finance Committee, would ensure benefits for retired miners even as coal companies go out of business.

West Virginia miner Ricky Coalson worked for Patriot Coal, which went bankrupt. So he is among about 25,000 miners and their dependents who have been told they will lose benefits at the end of the year, unless the legislation passes. Worrisome times for Coalson, who has black lung and said Medicare won't cover all the bills.

"I'll have to come up with insurance for my wife, then I'll have to come up with another one for me to cover the 20 percent," he said. "It does frustrate you. I just have to trust in the Lord."

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