Out of Breath: New Hope for Coal Miners Seeking Black Lung Benefits

PHOTO: Dr. Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins examines lung X-rays.
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Citing an investigative report by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity, the U.S. Department of Labor has ordered officials handling black lung claims from mine workers to stop relying on the medical opinions of a leading Johns Hopkins doctor whose work for coal companies helped lead to benefits being denied to thousands of miners over the last two decades.

The Labor Department's senior attorney told ABC News the agency is now preparing to notify every miner whose benefits were denied based in part on the doctor's X-ray readings that they should consider reapplying for those benefits.

"This sends a signal that the Department of Labor hasn't sent in a long time," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Penn. "That they're not going to tolerate a system that's rigged."

ABC NEWS INVESTIGATION: Out of Breath

INTERACTIVE: The Untold Story of Big Money, Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies

The Labor Department action comes in response to a joint, year-long investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity that found the head of the Hopkins black lung program, Dr. Paul S. Wheeler, had not reported a single instance of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 claims that the news outlets reviewed going back to the year 2000.

Labor department officials said they were unaware of Wheeler's record until the ABC News report was broadcast.

"It was shocking," said Patricia Smith, the Labor Department solicitor, in an interview to be broadcast tonight on "Nightline".

In a bulletin sent this week, the Labor Department's district directors were instructed to "(1) take notice of this reporting and (2) not credit Dr. Wheeler's negative readings... in the absence of persuasive evidence" challenging the conclusions of the news organizations.

"My judgment of his credibility is that unless someone can convince us otherwise, that anyone who has done that many readings and never found black lung isn't probably credible," Smith said.

In court testimony in 2009, Wheeler said the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung, a finding that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits under a special federal program, was in "the 1970's or the early 80's."

Hopkins suspended Wheeler's black lung unit a few days after the ABC News/CPI report was broadcast and posted online.

Hopkins said it would conduct its own internal investigation, which a spokesperson said remains ongoing.

"We take these allegations very seriously and are still conducting the investigation into the [black lung] program," Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an email. "While our investigation is ongoing, nobody at Hopkins -- including Dr. Wheeler -- is performing" black lung X-ray readings.

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Wheeler said he hopes to be cleared by the internal Hopkins investigation -- which he said is being conducted by the Washington, D.C., law firm Patton Boggs. "The hospital still believes in my approach," he said.

Wheeler told ABC News he is unmoved by the Labor Department bulletin. "They're not doctors," he said. "If they were from qualified medical institutions, I would be very unhappy."

Wheeler's readings and others like it had become key component of the legal effort by coal companies to fight mine workers as they sought to collect the roughly $1,000-a-month benefit intended to compensate them if they contracted the deadly lung disease during a career of hard work in underground shafts.

Wheeler said during a lengthy interview with ABC News last fall that he could not conclude the coal miners had black lung without first seeing a biopsy -- a step not required by the government program that provides financial support to coal miners who have fallen ill with the deadly disease. He said other maladies were as likely, or more likely, to cause lung damage that could be mistaken as black lung.

"That's my opinion, and I have a perfect right to my opinion," he said.

For his work, coal companies paid Hopkins $750 for each X-ray he reads for black lung, about 10 times the amount miners typically pay their doctors.

One leading expert in black lung, Dr. Jack Parker of West Virginia University, called Wheeler's X-ray readings "intellectually dishonest."

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