Two U.S. congressmen have called on the Labor Department's inspector general to investigate whether doctors and lawyers, working on behalf of coal companies, have helped improperly deprive hundreds of mine workers of disability benefits they should have received after contracting black lung disease.
"I look forward to learning the results of your investigation as I work with my colleagues to assess legislative reforms to prevent the benefits claims process from being gamed by coal companies, their lawyers, and their doctors," said U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Joe Courtney, D-Conn., in a letter to the inspector general.
The Nov. 7 letter also says the congressmen will seek "to ensure that those who have been improperly denied benefits will have another opportunity at securing fair treatment."
Miller is the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees labor issues.
The press for an inquiry cites a series of reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity describing how lawyers and doctors hired by the coal industry have played a crucial role in beating back claims for benefits from miners sick and dying of black lung. Fewer than 10 percent of coal miners who apply for the benefits, which range from just over $600 a month to about $1,250 a month, ultimately have received them, Labor Department numbers show.
Publicly available records examined by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity showed that the leader of a special black lung unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Dr. Paul Wheeler, was involved in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000, and he never found the severe form of black lung that automatically triggers benefits. Wheeler has defended his work, saying he is following standard medical practice.
Johns Hopkins announced last week that it was suspending its program of reading X-rays for black lung, pending a review, in response to the news reports.
The request also comes as Democratic Sens. Robert Casey, Penn., and Jay Rockefeller, W.Va., have begun looking into possible legislative action to address the issues raised in those reports, which revealed how powerful – and sometimes surprising – forces have helped the industry defeat claims.
The disability payment program facing scrutiny was set up by Congress in the late 1960s to address the large number of coal miners who were becoming disabled by black lung disease, a progressive illness caused by dust in the lungs that can often be fatal. Recent reports suggest that after years of decline, the disease is back on the rise.
Senior officials at the Labor Department told ABC News they are disappointed the system may be failing miners, and the agency is helping lawmakers with possible legislative solutions.
"I think that if there's a problem with certain doctors who for whatever reason shouldn't be giving evidence in these cases, that's an issue that Congress has to address," said Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith.
Smith was asked whether it was acceptable that so few coal miners were able to obtain the black lung benefits.
"No that's not acceptable," she said, "and we need to work with these new amendments to see if that actually helps improve the situation."
Government and union officials expressed concerns about the role doctors at Johns Hopkins Medicine played in seeing coal miner appeals for benefits turned down.
The government agency that certifies doctors to read X-rays for black lung issued a statement Monday saying it was "deeply disturbed" by the findings of the CPI-ABC News investigation. The agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), said efforts to address the problems raised in the reports should emphasize "accuracy and mainstream views and minimize the impact of outlying views."
"In light of the recent troubling reports, NIOSH applauds the decision of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to investigate its [black lung X-ray reading] service and offers whatever assistance we can provide," the agency wrote.
Chris Hamby is an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.