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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Doubling Down in West Virginia

Rep. Nick Rahall’s latest TV ad doubles down on the deceptive claim that Republican Evan Jenkins has pledged to “take away” black lung benefits from coal miners.

In the latest ad, a coal miner by the name of Jackie Counts Jr. says, “When I hear Evan Jenkins say that he’s gonna take away our black lung benefits, it just bothers me to no end.” Jenkins said no such thing. To the contrary, Jenkins says he is “firmly opposed to any cuts to the Federal Black Lung Benefit Program.”

Counts also says in the ad, “If I lose my black lung benefits, I don’t know what I’d do.” But Counts is in no danger of losing his benefits. The Rahall campaign is talking about Jenkins’ support to repeal the Affordable Care Act — which included two amendments to the Black Lung Act that make it easier for miners and surviving spouses and dependents to claim black lung benefits. Repeal of the ACA may make it harder for Counts’ wife to obtain survivor benefits upon his death, if there is no attempt to preserve the ACA amendments in new legislation. But it would not take away black lung benefits from him or any other miner currently receiving such benefits.

We’ve explored this issue once before in a March 19 item titled “Bogus Attack in Coal-Mine Country.” But this new ad is even more deceptive by putting words in Jenkins’ mouth and using a coal miner to make an emotional plea about losing his benefits.

Rahall’s ad starts with an accurate statement: “Nick Rahall helped expand and improve black lung benefits.” The ad, in small print at the bottom left corner of the screen, cites Rahall’s vote on H.R. 3590 on March 21, 2010. The ad doesn’t mention the name of the bill, but H.R. 3590 is the Affordable Care Act, which Rahall supported. As we explained in March, the ACA included two provisions sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia that amended the Black Lung Benefits Act.

The benefits program, which was established in 1969, provides compensation to miners totally disabled by pneumoconiosis and, upon their death, to their eligible survivors. Currently, it pays a miner or surviving spouse $625 per month — less any money that “a miner or surviving spouse is receiving [in] workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, or disability insurance payments under state law,” according to the Social Security Administration’s history of the law. The monthly amount is higher if the miner or widow has dependents, up to a family maximum of $1,251 per month.

The Byrd amendments made it easier for coal miners and their eligible survivors to qualify for black lung benefits. One amendment requires the mining company to prove that coal dust was not a significant factor in the miner’s disease, shifting the burden of proof from the miner to the company. The other amendment prevents surviving spouses and dependents from having to file a new claim for survivor benefits, if the miner had been deemed eligible for benefits upon his death.

The ad makes no mention of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Instead, it leaves the false impression that Jenkins has pledged to repeal the Black Lung Benefits Act and leaves the false impression that miners will lose their current benefits if Jenkins is successful. After all, Counts says he heard it from Jenkins himself.

When we asked the Rahall campaign about the claims in the ad, campaign manager Sam Raymond quoted our March article. “FactCheck.org wrote that Evan Jenkins’ position on black lung benefits ‘would make it more difficult for some miners and surviving spouses to prove eligibility for the Federal Black Lung Benefits Program.’ ” But that’s not exactly what we wrote.

FactCheck.org, March 19: A repeal of the ACA would make it more difficult for some miners and surviving spouses to prove eligibility for the Federal Black Lung Benefits Program. But that would not repeal the benefits, which were created under a separate law.

Furthermore, Jenkins is on the record repeatedly saying he would replace the ACA — not just repeal it. And the Jenkins campaign now says on its website — in response to this ad — that “he is firmly opposed to any cuts to the Federal Black Lung Benefit Program.”

We went on to write, “Black lung benefits would continue — although some miners and surviving spouses would be denied benefits and some would find it harder to obtain benefits. And that assumes that there would be no attempt to preserve the Byrd amendments either in a replacement health care bill or a standalone piece of legislation.”

There is no question that repealing the Affordable Care Act would have repercussions far and wide, and it is legitimate to debate what will happen to miners and their families if the law is repealed. But this ad does not address those points. Instead, it distorts the facts and misrepresents Jenkins’ position on black lung benefits.

— Eugene Kiely