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Black Lung Benefits Become Political Issue in Kentucky

FILE - Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks to a group of supporters, including members of the United Mine Workers Association.

FILE - Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks to a group of supporters, including members of the United Mine Workers Association.

The race for the U.S. Senate seat in the central state of Kentucky is being closely watched before the November election. Coal is a main industry in the state and health benefits for miners has become a pivotal issue between incumbent Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan-Grimes.

Winning over Kentucky coal miners has been an up-hill battle for Lundergan-Grimes, who has been painted as President Barack Obama’s candidate. The coal industry declined sharply during the Obama administration due to its concern with the coal industry's effect on the environment. McConnell has called it the president's "War on Coal."

But coal miners have been caught in a debate over the new health care law and its changes to federal Black Lung benefits.

In Pikeville, Kentucky, Robert Compton - a coal miner who worked in eastern Kentucky for 34 years - says his mining career was cut short on February 1, 2008.

"I went to my family doctor, he told me I had pneumonia in both lungs and he pulled me out of the mines because my lungs and my kidneys were that bad," Compton said. "My kidneys have straightened up a lot, but my lungs [are] never going to straighten up, but I can deal with that.”

Black Lung (coal miner pneumoconiosis) is an incurable lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust. Survivors typically live out their days hooked up to oxygen and breathing is laborious and sometimes painful.

“I miss working in the mines, I miss the men I worked with, made a lot of good friends, but you have got to like what you do to stay in there,” Compton said.

Two amendments to the Affordable Care Act in 2010 made it easier for miners to win Black Lung compensation.

Compton’s lawyer at the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center, Steve Sanders, says the law presumes if a coal miner has worked at least 15 years and has a disabling respiratory impairment, then he has Black Lung.

“The burden then shifts to the party that is opposing the miners claim to prove either the miner does not have Black Lung or the miner’s impairment is not due to his coal mine employment and dust exposure,” he said.

Sanders said the law also automatically entitles a miners’ widow to survivor benefits. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, which Republicans have repeatedly called for, Sanders says it is unknown what would happen to future federal Black Lung benefits as well as those already paid out.

McConnell has said he wants to replace the Affordable Care Act with "real reforms," but has not offered details.

But political analysts say President Obama's record with the coal industry will probably trump any other issues for miners. Kentucky has lost more than 8,000 coal mining jobs.

University of Kentucky Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross said this has changed the way coal miners, who used to favor Democrats on issues like mine safety, unions and health care, view their industry.

“Used to [be] you were an operator or you were a miner and never the twain shall meet, but now the coal industry is under the greatest attack it has ever been and the miners have thrown in with the operators,” he said.

Cross said Democrats could steer coal miners back their way by pointing to the Black Lung amendments in the health care law. In Kentucky, many miners and their families now have health insurance thanks to that law.

A recent endorsement of Lundergan-Grimes from the United Mine Workers of America could also help her. The union did not endorse Obama in 2012.

But Pikeville University Political Scientist Nancy Cade said union endorsements do not carry the sway they used to. She says the issue of declining coal jobs is very important and McConnell knows that.

“And he has been consistent and he is seen as a coal miner’s friend," she said. "Grimes has also been pushing it heavily, but since she is a Democrat, she is seen as suspect.”

Compton said the changes to Black Lung benefits are good because miners should be able to win their federal Black Lung claims just as he was able to. But if miners lose their jobs, they can not care for their families.

“Only thing is put food on the table, pay my bills.," he said. "I have never worried about nothing, other than that. Because that is really the only thing that matters.”

Compton said he's not sure who he will vote for in November.

This story was funded by the Hearst Foundations and administered by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC.