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Coal Train

A train transports coal on Aug. 27 from a mine south of Gillette. A bill in the Legislature would limit access to a coal miner health fund to those who have been miners for at least 10 years.

Josh Galemore photos, Star-Tribune

Coal miners that have worked fewer than 10 years would no longer be eligible for a state fund that assists with medical bills, if a measure that passed in the Wyoming Senate last week continues successfully through the House.

Senate File 82 would tighten eligibility requirements to access the Wyoming Miner’s Hospital Board Account, a pool of money that some say has been stretched to the limits since the passing of the Affordable Care Act.

Mary Young, executive director of the Wyoming Miner’s Hospital Board, said she could not offer a position on the bill, but noted that the board is likely to use up the total of its budget for the 2017-2018 cycle, compared to having a $2 million surplus in the 2015-2016 budget.

Since the passing of the Affordable Care Act, deductibles have doubled, she said.

“That’s having a huge impact on us financially,” she said.

Access to the fund is currently available to miners who have worked at least 12 months, a system that is likely unsustainable in the current market, she said.

Young, a retired miner with more than 30 years’ experience, said the majority of those served by the fund would meet the new requirements if the bill passes.

About 8,000 miners are currently registered. Of those miners, about 30 percent had more than 20 years’ experience and 75 percent meet the 10-year threshold, she said.

An amendment added to the bill during debate made it so that miners that are already registered for benefits would not be impacted by the change in eligibility.

The miners’ fund offers assistance within four areas of health problems associated with mining — hearing, cardiac, muscular skeletal and respiratory. Common uses for the fund are surgery costs for back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries.

The fund is maxed for individuals at $5,000, but the board has set its own deductible this year.

Miners can access $2,000 from the fund before they chip in $2,000 themselves. At that point the additional $3,000 is available to them, paid directly to the provider to avoid fraud.

It’s a significant benefit to miners, many of whom are still working but have to go on medical leave or temporary disability during medical care, Young said.

“It helps them drastically if we are helping them pay those bills,” she said.

The miners’ fund continues a tradition in Wyoming that traces its roots back to the 1890s, when 30,000 acres were set aside in a permanent trust to support the miners’ hospital in Sweetwater County. Miners sued over the way that funding was being used in the early ‘90s, which led to the current program.

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said the group did not hold a position on the bill. A call to a union representative of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers chapter in Rock Springs, which represents some coal miners in the state, was not returned by press time.

The bill was introduced in the House on Monday. It was sponsored by the Joint Appropriations Committee, which handles bills related to Wyoming’s expenses.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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