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Committee approves funding for miners' benefits

| Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003

A special health care benefits program covering more than 52,000 retired coal miners and their families will be preserved through 2004 under pending federal legislation that would pump $110 million into the United Mine Workers' Combined Benefits Fund.

The legislation was unanimously approved Wednesday by the bipartisan, 52-member House Resources Committee. The legislation was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Nick Jo Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican.

The measure, labeled the Coal Accountability and Retired Employee Act for the 21st Century, allows an immediate infusion of $110 million in interest from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund into the Benefits Fund, which once again faces a cash shortage. The United Mine Workers union estimates the fund would end the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2003, with a net deficit of around $40 million.

However, the legislation still needs both House and Senate approval to become law. A House aide said the measure could go to the full House of Representatives sometime next year.

UMW President Cecil E. Roberts on Wednesday said the vote by the House Resources Committee "sets the wheels in motion'' for the legislation to become law, and said the union would lobby both sides of the aisle in hopes of expediting the process.

The Combined Benefits Fund provided benefits to 52,439 beneficiaries nationwide, as of March 1, 2002. The number includes 10,324, or 19.6 percent, in Pennsylvania; 15,652, or 29.8 percent, in West Virginia, and 3,497, or 6.7 percent, in Ohio.

The mineworkers' Combined Benefit Fund is a private employee benefit trust fund that provides health care and death benefits for eligible union coal miners. It was created as a result of the 1992 Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act. Under the Coal Act, certain retired coal miners and eligible family members are assigned to former employers who are then responsible for paying the annual health benefit premiums for beneficiaries.

While the Coal Act also obligates operating coal companies to pay health care premiums for unassigned "orphan" miners, or those retirees whose last employer has gone out of business or can't be traced, it also provides subsidies to boost shortfalls by allowing transfers of up to $70 million from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund. That fund is financed by fees assessed operators on each ton of coal mined.

Rahal said the CARE 21 legislation was significant because it eliminates the $70 million cap, and allows interest to be transferred to prevent a net deficit in the Combined Benefit Fund in order to avoid any reduction in health care coverage.

The financial condition of the Combined Benefit Fund has deteriorated since the mid-1990s. The mineworkers' union said the average age of the beneficiary population is nearly 80 years, and their total estimated health cost for the current fiscal year is $362 million. The fund's solvency has been jeopardized by rapidly rising health care costs and a series of adverse court decisions.

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