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Retired coal workers get 4-month extension on health coverage

St. Louis-based Peabody Energy announced that it doubled it profits in the last three months as higher global prices and demand for coal offset production disruptions blamed on devastating rains in Australia. (slprnews)
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Peabody Energy, headquartered in St. Louis. The company spun off many of its operations into Patriot Coal, which later went bankrupt; leaving thousands of retirees unsure of the future of their health coverage.

Updated Dec. 10 with results of Senate vote — With an hour to spare before a government shutdown, the U.S. Senate approved a stopgap spending bill late Friday that allows coal workers in southern Illinois to keep their health coverage until April.

Coverage for about 16,000 employees of now-bankrupt coal companies was set to run out at the end of the year. Coal state Democrats held up a vote on the bill because they wanted a longer benefits extension.

For Phil Smith, director of government affairs for United Mine Workers of America, the four-month extension is  “no better than nothing:”

“Look, these are folks who need their health care benefits, not just a month from now or four months from now, they need them a year from now,” Smith. “And we have no guarantee from the government that if we accept this four month proposal, that there’s going to be anything coming next.”

Many of the mine workers who were about to lose their benefits are former employees of St. Louis-based Peabody Coal Company. (Several thousand others will lose their coverage at a later date). A pension fund also is expected to become insolvent by 2022, according to the union. 

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Friday that she would vote against the spending bill.

“Here’s the question Americans should always be asking every member of Congress: who are you fighting for?” McCaskill said in a statement. “Passing a bipartisan fix for these miners would mean they won’t have to spend the holidays terrified of losing their healthcare.”

McCaskill pointed to a letter she received from retired coal miner Billy Hull, of Montrose.

“My wife Earlene is a two time cancer survivor and I suffered a stroke in 2012. If we lose our benefits it will be hard for us to afford our medicine cost,” Hull wrote. “Due to the bankruptcy of both Peabody Coal Co. and the Patriot Coal Company, the Patriot VEBA fund will be exhausted…leaving us without pension and healthcare benefits.”

U.S. Reps. Mike Bost and John Shimkus, two Illinois Republicans, voted in favor of the stopgap bill in the House. Neither returned requests for comment.

Though life-long benefits have long been a part of the UMWA’s contracts with their employers, U.S. bankruptcy law does not guarantee health coverage when a company goes out of business. The federal government has stepped in to cover retirees from bankrupt coal companies with legislation in 1992 and 2006.

“These are people who earned their health care benefits, and who have black lung, they have severe musculoskeletal injuries because of the nature of their work, they have heart disease,” said Smith, the union leader.  “They need these benefits and they need them to survive.”

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.