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Manchin to look into widows' benefits cutoff

Gov. Joe Manchin promised Tuesday to find out why widows of miners promised workers’ compensation benefits for life have been cut off.

“I asked about it [Monday] and I’ll get a full report,” Manchin said.

A Sunday Gazette-Mail story described the plight of several widows cut off from their promised lifetime benefits. Since then, Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has questioned how much it would cost the state to reinstitute the benefits.

On Tuesday, Delegate Mike Caputo asked his colleagues to call BrickStreet Mutual Insurance’s top executive, Greg Burton, and complain. BrickStreet is the private firm that replaced the state Workers’ Compensation Commission on Jan. 1.

“It’s wrong and I defy anybody in this House to tell me this isn’t wrong,” Caputo, D-Marion and a member of the United Mine Workers, said on the House floor.

Manchin said he did not know about BrickStreet’s regulation that cut off widows or widowers of those killed at a workplace when the deceased spouse would have reached retirement age.

“I really don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” the governor said. “The bottom line is we have to take care of people.”

Manchin said he has been pleased with the quick payments from BrickStreet to the widows of 16 coal miners killed in the state this year.

Caputo said changing state workers’ comp laws cutting off widows was not discussed during the 2003 debate over workers’ comp. He and others are particularly incensed because BrickStreet is applying the law retroactively, cutting off people who had been promised lifetime benefits prior to 2003.

Caputo read from state law, saying it still calls for full lifetime benefits. “I don’t know how the code can be any clearer than that,” he said.

He called actions by the firm “mean-spirited” and said he was “appalled” by them.

“That’s the biggest crock I’ve heard in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Caputo said, sitting down to applause from his House colleagues.

Delegate Cliff Moore, D-McDowell, joined Caputo in his criticism, but warned delegates that telephones at the new firm allow a person only to punch buttons. “I do propose you write letters because you can’t get through,” he said.

Pay raises defended

Also Tuesday, Manchin defended some of his proposals, including one asking for pay increases for top managerial employees. Lawmakers defeated that proposal last year.

“We have agency heads that are making less than the people who work for them,” the governor said.

That’s why in some state jobs there are “acting” heads of agencies. That’s a way to pay them more than what state statute allows.

He would not commit to vetoing two tax-changing bills lawmakers have already passed, despite asking the Legislature to wait to consider tax reform measures during a special session later in the year. The governor also refrained from saying he would not veto such bills.

“All I’ve said is why don’t you wait until we can evaluate it,” Manchin said.

Concerns that the state’s basic tax structure, much of which was enacted during the “Great Depression” years, is now hurting West Virginia’s economy need to be addressed together, he said.

“If taxes is one of the things that might be a hindrance, or holding us back, we need to look at it,” Manchin said.

Early in the day, the governor spoke to members of the state AARP, telling them he wants their children and grandchildren to live in West Virginia, and the importance of independent living for senior citizens.

“I’m trying to make sure everybody has the opportunity to live independently,” he told the group at a Capitol breakfast.

On another subject, Manchin said he did what he always does for his wife, Gayle, on Valentine’s Day.

“I send her roses and a nice card,” he said. “I’ve always done that.”

To contact staff writer Tom Searls, use e-mail or call 348-5192.


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