Two U.S. senators are preparing legislation to better protect ailing coal miners who are suffering from black lung disease on the heels of reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity that exposed flaws in the federal benefits program.
“We don’t want these kinds of injustices that have been perpetrated for many years now to continue,” said Sen. Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
The legislation, which was made public Thursday, attempts to improve a cumbersome and time-consuming program that is supposed to provide health benefits to coal miners who contract black lung disease and become too sick to work. The new bill is intended to help miners with legal costs, to help speed up the review process, and to assist them in gathering medical evidence when a coal company disputes the worker’s claim of being sick.
Perhaps most pointedly, the proposed law would increase penalties for unethical conduct by attorneys and doctors in the black lung claims process.
Casey crafted the bill with another senator from coal country, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia. Casey said the proposal comes in direct response to a joint, year-long investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity that found the head of the Johns 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.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the benefits program, 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 earlier this year, when the department issued new rules to assist miners with their claims.
Labor Department officials declined to comment on the proposed legislation because it had not yet been formally introduced. Casey’s office said that was due to occur immediately after the congressional recess that was scheduled to begin Friday. The United Mine Workers of America called the proposal an “imperative,” noting reports that black lung disease has resurgent in mining country after years of decline.
“As the recent troubling revelations about the rapid rise of black lung in Central Appalachia indicates, it is imperative that action be taken as soon as possible,” said Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs for the union. “It is important for Congress to step up and pass this bill.”
Casey expressed doubts about the prospects for the bill, noting the strength of the coal industry lobby in Washington. “It’s very much uphill because you have a lot of vested interests who would like to see the system stay just like it is,” Casey told ABC News.
Bruce Watzman, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the legislation was being introduced “under the guise of equity,” but would actually open the black lung benefits program up to fraud and abuse. It would also unfairly limit the ability of coal companies to defend against unjustified claims, he said.
“It will result in more litigation with the losers being those who truly suffer from occupational disease resulting from coal mine employment,” Watzman said in a statement. “No one wants to deny a miner with this disease the benefits he or she deserves and there are existing guidelines to ensure those are allocated as the law intends. But this legislation does nothing to advance this admirable goal.”
ABC News sought reaction from Johns Hopkins Thursday but received no response. The hospital suspended its black lung x-ray reading program since shortly after the report first aired last fall and pledged to investigate the matter.
During the initial broadcast, Wheeler explained why he had rarely concluded that coal miner x-rays revealed the complicated form of black lung disease. He said he could not conclude the miners had black lung without first seeing a biopsy -- a step not required by the government benefits program. And he said he believed 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 ten 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” in ABC News’ original broadcast.