FRANKFORT - U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has vowed to repeal all of the federal Affordable Care Act - even though it includes several provisions that help coal miners receive benefits for black lung disease.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell's Democratic challenger, criticized McConnell for opposing those benefits during a campaign swing through the eastern Kentucky coalfields on Thursday.
"Mitch McConnell has called for a full repeal of these pro-coal miner protections. While I have expressed my disagreement with some parts of the broader healthcare bill, which I will work to fix, I certainly support (these) amendments," Grimes said in a news release.
While McConnell has said he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he said he wants to replace it with "real reforms." A McConnell spokeswoman dismissed Grimes' criticism as trying to deceive Kentucky voters into believing she is pro-coal.
"Perhaps someone should remind Alison that it was Sen. McConnell who co-sponsored and passed the MINER Act to ensure the health and safety of America's coal miners," spokeswoman Allison Moore said.
Black lung disease is the common name for pneumoconiosis - a lung disease that comes from inhaling coal dust. Kentucky has a backlog of more than 1,000 coal miners who have filed workers compensation claims because of the disease. State officials say more miners are filing claims because more of them are out of work. Eastern Kentucky has lost 7,000 direct coal mining jobs since Jan. 1, 2012.
The Affordable Care Act included two amendments - sponsored by the late West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd - that reinstated some provisions in black lung benefits that had been eliminated in 1981.
Grimes was scheduled to talk about coal mine safety and fighting black lung disease on Thursday during a campaign stop in Hyden at the site of the 1970 Hurricane Creek mining disaster, where 38 coal miners died after an explosion. Kentucky Democrats have depended on eastern Kentucky for decades as a solid source of votes in statewide elections. It's also the historic center of Kentucky's coal mining culture with the coal industry being the region's main economic engine.
But with McConnell and Grimes locked in one of the closest Senate races in the country, McConnell has been aggressively courting eastern Kentucky's coal voters. He has frequently criticized Grimes for being anti-coal for accepting campaign donations from anti-coal groups and for not mentioning coal during a fundraiser with Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
"She's fully aligned with President Obama and the anti-coal liberals funding her campaign," Moore said.
While Grimes has been campaigning on other issues lately, including raising the minimum wage and combating student loan debt, she embarked on a two-day tour of eastern Kentucky before the Fourth of July holiday in an attempt to blunt some of McConnell's attacks.
"I have spoken out forcefully on this issue. I have condemned the Obama administration for misguided policies that harm hard-working Kentuckians and their families," Grimes said in a news release announcing her support of two pieces of coal legislation, sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, that would increase penalties for mining safety violations and establish grants for the research of black lung disease.