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"Pro-Coal" U.S. Sen. Leadership Blocks Miners' Pension, Health Care Rescue

Gale Herron is a miner's widow at risk of losing some of her health-care coverage, unless a bill now stalled in the U.S. Senate passes. (Dan Heyman)
Gale Herron is a miner's widow at risk of losing some of her health-care coverage, unless a bill now stalled in the U.S. Senate passes. (Dan Heyman)
November 7, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.V. -- A bill to save the pensions and healthcare of thousands of retired miners and their dependents is stuck in the Senate - in spite of pro-coal election talk by Senate leaders.

Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito back the Miners' Protection Act, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has prevented the bill from making it to the floor, where it is likely to pass.

Gale Herron is the widow of a long-time Peabody miner and is now at risk of losing part of her health care. She accused politicians like Hilary Clinton of saying one thing in public and doing something else in private.

"That describes McConnell completely,” Herron said. "He has the perception he wants the public and voters to see, and then in private I think he has a different agenda."

McConnell has said he is protecting coal miners by fighting environmental regulations.

The Miners' Protection Act would transfer money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to a fund administered by the United Mine Workers, which covers the retirement obligations of mine companies that have declared bankruptcy. About 25,000 miners and their dependents have been told they will lose pension or healthcare benefits at the end of the year.

Former miner Ricky Coalson said his black lung is advanced enough to make it hard for him to climb stairs or carry anything. He has Medicare, but he said he will lose his wife's insurance and the second policy that covers what Medicare doesn't.

"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,” Coalson said. "It does frustrate you. I just have to trust in the Lord."

A long-time Democrat, Herron said her frustration with the government has gotten so bad she's voting for Donald Trump this year - though she doesn't think much of him either. She said she's likely to lose the coverage that pays for her medications, which can cost more than a $1,000 every three months.

Herron said it hurts to realize her husband kept going back underground because of promises now being broken.

"I wanted him to get out of the industry, but he kept saying, 'No, I'll have the pension. We'll have medical coverage,’” she said. "And I think about all that and I think, ‘oh my god, it wasn't true.'"

The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee and supporters hope it will come to the floor after the election.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV