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

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This week's move by the Labor Department came just hours before a scheduled ABC News interview about several new cases in which coal workers saw their applications for black lung benefits turned down based in part on Wheeler X-ray readings that had been submitted prior to the ABC News report.

Among them was the case of Gerald "Wayne" Cordle, who spent 26 years in the mines but in recent years began feeling short of breath when he would mow the lawn or climb stairs. Each year, he said, it continued to get worse.

It was only after his doctor diagnosed him with black lung that he applied for benefits that miners are entitled to receive if they contract a severe form of the deadly lung disease.

In January, two months after the ABC News/CPI report, the Labor Department rejected Cordle's claim citing, in part, Wheeler's conclusion that his X-ray did not show black lung.

"Well it was really a letdown, a big letdown," Cordle said, "because I felt like I was entitled to it by all indications."

"The reports I was getting on my X-rays said I had complicated black lung, and then they come up with one x-ray [from Dr. Wheeler], and the Labor Board rules in their favor," he said.

Cordle's lawyer, Joseph Wolfe, filed an appeal citing the news reports about Wheeler and the Hopkins black lung program. In the appeal, he noted that Wheeler's track record as documented in the news reports "diminishes the probative value of his readings in this case."

"What I noticed was that the Department of Labor hadn't connected the dots," Wolfe said. "They gave him equal weight [to other doctors] when he's been discredited - even Johns Hopkins, which is the number one hospital in America, has dropped their program."

On May 29, Casey and U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez asking why Hopkins X-rays were continuing to be used to deny coal miner black lung claims. Moreover, the letter asked the department "to assess, based on the new information presented in the investigative report, whether it has the authority to review, and where appropriate, reopen cases where claimants may have been wrongfully denied black lung benefits because the Department was misled by tainted medical evidence."

"To the extent it is permissible, I am sure you would agree that the claims of these miners and their survivors deserve a second look," the letter says.

Smith said the Labor Department began work on a strategy soon after the news report aired to help resolve what she said was recognized as an imbalance in the process of evaluating black lung claims by coal miners.

"We sat down among ourselves here in the department and we tried to think of ways to improve the system," said Smith, who is the senior Labor Department lawyer.

Now, Cordle may be one of the first beneficiaries of the Labor Department's new approach.

Smith said the department was aware of Cordle's case, along with several others, which she said would likely be re-examined.

Smith said the department has also initiated two pilot programs aimed at giving miners a second look at medical evidence that was being used against them, and has drafted new regulations aimed at requiring coal company lawyers to turn over all medical evidence they gather -- even when that evidence proves the coal miner has a severe case of black lung disease. Those are now under review.

Congressman Miller, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee that oversees labor issues, told ABC News he believes there is more work to be done.

"The coal mining company's lawyers have unlimited funds to discredit the reading of an X-ray with black lung and the coal miner is very limited because it's coming out of his pocket," Miller said. "So this whole deck is stacked against a miner who may be very seriously ill with black lung and disabled and can't go to work and yet it may take many years to get the first payment to that coal miner."

"This gives new meaning to the phrase justice delayed is justice denied," Casey said. "There is more work to be done."

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