Coal miners’ much-needed health care collides with budget showdown


JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Lisa, stay with us, because you mentioned this West Virginia coal miners issue several times. And you have actually done reporting. You have been to West Virginia.

Tell us more.

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right. We just got back from West Virginia over the weekend.

And President Trump, as you know, has campaigned on a promise to reverse the fortunes of coal country. That message especially resonated in West Virginia, where he swept every single county in last year's elections.

READ MORE: What people living in poverty want the presidential candidates to know

But now thousands of miners are in jeopardy of losing their health care if Congress doesn't act.

This is another installment in our ongoing Chasing the Dream series on poverty and opportunity in America.

Many stories about mining start here, a coal yard in Appalachia. But this story starts here in a front yard. After 27 years underground, former miner Damon Tucker left with a list of health problems and frustrations.

DAMON TUCKER, Retired Coal Miner: I told my wife. I said, I will flip hamburgers. I will draw my pension and flip hamburgers if I have to. I'm not — I'm coming out of the mines.

LISA DESJARDINS: Flipping hamburgers didn't happen. Lawn care did with his own one-man business near Beckley, West Virginia. But Tucker, who had open heart surgery just over a year ago, still depends on his miners health plan.

So what would it mean if your health care benefits just stopped?

DAMON TUCKER: Well, you know, I will take what medicine I can afford to pay right now, but my follow-up visits with doctors and stuff, I won't — I won't go. I — you know, I won't be able to afford to go.

LISA DESJARDINS: Some 22,000 retired union miners and their widows will lose their health care if Congress doesn't act. Many have chronic lung diseases. Their union benefit health plan supports clinics like this in Southern West Virginia and helps them pay their medical costs.

WOMAN: Take a deep breath in.

LISA DESJARDINS: These retired miners say the federal government guaranteed this health care at a key moment 70 years ago, 1946. After a massive miner strike threatened the power grid, President Truman did something historic: He stepped in to forge a deal where coal companies and the mining union agreed to fund lifelong health care and pensions.

MAN: I blame the government more than I do the coal companies.

LISA DESJARDINS: That last-century promise is colliding with today's funding problem and critical health needs at a meeting of the Fayette County Black Lung Association.

MAN: They want to send me to a lung doctor the 1st of next month. Well, if they don't pass that bill, then the 1st of the next month, I won't have no insurance.

MAN: I would like to say my breathing and everything's getting better, but it's not. It's getting worse.

MAN: It'll take us going back to Washington, and protesting, and letting them know how we feel. We need to let the government know: Hey, you all promised that. We supposed to get that.

LISA DESJARDINS: How did this happen? As the coal industry declined, there were fewer miners paying into the system, and more miners retiring and drawing on their benefits. Starting in the 1990s, coal companies used bankruptcy filings as a way to stop paying their portion of the benefits.

All that led to shortfalls, and while government never intended to pay for these benefits, Congress has become a kind of funder of last resort, and has stepped in multiple times to make up the difference.

And that brings us to today. Miners' fates are yet again in the hands of Washington politicians. But, notably, this time, miners' health benefits run out as another deadline hits, the deadline to fund most of government.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.Va.: How many in here are depending on this health care we're talking about?

LISA DESJARDINS: West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, drawing packed rooms of miners at Southern West Virginia Community College, wants to solve their health care issue permanently by leveraging the overlapping crises.

He doesn't use the word shutdown, but his moves could lead to one. He says he and other Democrats could block or delay government funding this week.

Is the only way that you could support the next funding bill if it contains a permanent fix for these health care benefits?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: As of I'm speaking of you right now, absolutely. It's what I'm fighting for, and it's what's basically the only right thing to do.

LISA DESJARDINS: But West Virginia Republican Congressman David McKinley says, for now, he's OK with less, a 20-month-or-so patch that would mean another fix needed after the 2018 election.

REP. DAVID MCKINLEY, R-W.Va.: Look, I would embrace what he's talking about over on the Senate side, but you don't shut government down over this. Let's be reasonable about it, and not give false hope.

LISA DESJARDINS: Another potential divide, McKinley is considering running against Manchin for Senate next year.

Still others look at coal country, despite Truman's involvement, and say it's time Congress to stop funding these benefits.

RACHEL GRESZLER, The Heritage Foundation: That promise came from their employees and the union. It didn't come from the government.

LISA DESJARDINS: Rachel Greszler from the conservative Heritage Foundation points out miners are far from the only group facing benefit problems.

RACHEL GRESZLER: If the government steps in now and says, just because you performed a very valuable service, and coal mining is crucial to our country, we're going to bail you out, what does that say to any other worker who sees their job as very valuable, and yet their union and their employers can't make good on the promises they provided?

KATHY VANCE, Wife of Deceased Miner: It doesn't even look like he had started to develop black lung at that point.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Kathy Vance, whose husband, Larry, died of complications from black lung, says miners are different because the federal government was involved in their benefits from the beginning. She's a cancer survivor herself and her widow's benefits help with doctors visits and medicine.

KATHY VANCE: It's just, you know, a constant worry of, are we going to have health benefits or not? He would be very angry, because, you know, he — he supported the union wholeheartedly.

LISA DESJARDINS: This crisis over miners benefits comes under one of the most pro-coal-sounding presidents in decades.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And in other countries, they love their coal. Over here, we haven't treated it with the respect it deserves.

LISA DESJARDINS: But President Trump has been publicly silent on miners benefits. And Manchin wants more.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: I'm very appreciate President Trump's willingness to want to help the coal miners. We just need him now to step forward.

LISA DESJARDINS: Back outside Beckley, Damon Tucker knows many in his situation, including fellow church leader and in-law Rickie Coalson, who has black lung. Both rely on their miners benefits.

DAMON TUCKER: And it's not like we're asking for a handout or anything either. It was hard sweat work that — benefits that we negotiated. And all we want is just what was promised to us.

RICKIE COALSON, Retired Coal Miner: Coal miners are proud people. They're not going to beg. Just want to be treated fair. My father was a coal miner, and his father was a coal miner. So, it's kind of like a tradition, too. And I knew — well, I thought, when I did retire, I would have good benefits.

LISA DESJARDINS: However Congress acts, and even if President Trump's coal boom materializes in coal country, this family's mining tradition and frustrations ends with them. Both men advised their children not to become coal miners.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins in Josephine, West Virginia.

Recently in Nation