Investigative Unit 2013: Miners Denied Black Lung Benefits

PHOTO: Miner Gary FoxCourtesy Fox family
Miner Gary Fox

[As 2013 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on its major projects over the last year.]

For more than a century, the black dust from underground mines has been assaulting the lungs of coal workers, making them sick, and sometimes killing them. Medical studies suggest that despite efforts to eradicate the disease, black lung has been back on the rise.

A yearlong ABC News investigation in October revealed that, even as the illness has afflicted growing numbers of miners, only a small fraction of them have been receiving monthly benefits from a government program established to provide financial support to those disabled by the disease. And the ABC News reports, done in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, found that the trend emerged at the same time coal companies were paying millions of dollars to Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions for medical opinions that were being used to help reject benefits claims from hundreds of ailing mine workers.

"It is a total, national disgrace," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., of the findings. "The deck is stacked in theory and in practice against coal miners, men and women, and it is tragic."

The head of the Hopkins unit that interprets X-rays in black lung cases, Dr. Paul Wheeler, found not a single case of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion, a review by ABC News and the Center found. In recent court testimony, 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."

"That's my opinion, and I have a perfect right to my opinion," Wheeler told ABC News in a lengthy interview in which he defended his track record. For his work, coal companies pay Hopkins $750 for each X-ray he reads for black lung, about ten times the amount miners typically pay their doctors.

Hopkins said it had no reason to doubt Wheeler's findings, calling him "an established radiologist in good standing in his field."

Experts in black lung disease told ABC News that Wheeler's medical views appeared to be outside the mainstream, and several bluntly questioned Wheeler's approach. Dr. Michael Brooks, a radiologist at the University of Kentucky who sees thousands of black lung cases, said Wheeler's results were "either a case of someone really having no idea of what they're doing or being willfully misleading -- one of those two possibilities."

FULL COVERAGE: Out of Breath: Black Lung

The ABC News investigation found that doctors like the team from Johns Hopkins are part of a professional corps of lawyers and experts that have helped coal companies tamp down the number of black lung awards to mine workers. The most recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that only 14 percent of miners who claim to be sick are initially granted benefits. A 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office found that coal companies appeal about 80 percent of those cases. After appeals, about half of the miners who initially were awarded benefits â?" or less than 10 percent who initially applied â?" actually receive them.

IMPACT: Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung section and vowed to conduct an internal investigation. A group of U.S. Senators announced they would craft legislation to reform the black lung benefits program, using a series of reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity as a guide.� 

"The system didn't work" for ailing miners, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said. "Their government failed them as well as their company failing. So we have, I think, an abiding obligation to right this wrong."� 

Two U.S. congressmen called on the Labor Department's inspector general to investigate whether doctors and lawyers, working on behalf of coal companies, had helped improperly deprive hundreds of mine workers of disability benefits they should have received after contracting black lung disease. That investigation is underway.