New Mexico congressman in swing district seeks health care trust for oil field workers

Aug 16, 2023, 6:47 PM | Updated: 6:58 pm

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A bill aimed at compensating oil field workers and immediate relatives for uninsured medical costs related to air pollution and heat-related illness has been introduced by a first-term congressman from New Mexico.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez said Wednesday his bill would require that oil and natural gas companies nationwide pay into a trust that provides reimbursement to workers for health costs associated with ailments linked to methane and smog, including respiratory problems such as asthma.

Workers would be eligible to seek reimbursement for costs not covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, he said. A full draft of the bill as introduced Wednesday was not immediately available.

Vasquez said the proposal is an outgrowth of concerns he has heard from oil field workers in southeastern New Mexico — and his observations about extensive profits and executive compensation among major petroleum companies. New Mexico is the nation’s second-largest oil producer behind Texas.

“If you’re an energy worker in Hobbs or Carlsbad who has a child who has asthma, you would benefit from this legislation,” Vasquez said.

He said annual contributions by energy companies to a health care trust should equal compensation to their 10 highest-paid employees.

The bill marks a shift in focus from an unfettered support of the oil industry under Vasquez’s Republican predecessor, Yvette Herrell, and her criticism of energy exploration policies under the Biden administration.

Vasquez flipped the district, which extends from the U.S. border with Mexico to Albuquerque, to Democratic control in 2022, under newly drawn congressional districts that divvied up a major oil-producing region of New Mexico among three districts. Republicans are challenging the redistricting in state district court.

Vasquez announced details of the health compensation bill at a gathering in Hobbs, accompanied by advocates for the immigrant-rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, amid testimonials from oil field workers and their spouses — speaking in Spanish — about frustrations with working conditions.

“In reality my heart breaks because we’re left with the effects of this industry and the corporations that don’t pay what they should for it to be a just system,” Vasquez said in Spanish. “I ask you today to support us in the proposed legislation.”

The bill is modeled after a compensation program for coal miners disabled by black lung disease, under the provisions of a 1969 law, Vasquez said.

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New Mexico congressman in swing district seeks health care trust for oil field workers