-- Lawmakers have called a hearing to address concerns that a federal labor program for years may have unfairly denied benefits for coal miners who suffer from black lung disease.
“The current system of black lung claims has proven to be rife with problems, leading to undue denials and lengthy delays in miners’ pursuit of justice,” said Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), who is part of an effort in Congress to reform the program.
Casey said he called the Senate committee hearing, scheduled for Tuesday, to “begin to look at the root causes of these issues and begin to outline possible legislative solutions.”
Flaws with the federal black lung program were highlighted last fall in a year-long ABC News investigation with the Center for Public Integrity, and already the U.S. Department of Labor has pledged to take a fresh look at cases that relied 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 reports demonstrated examples of miners who were denied benefits based on doctors’ conclusions that they did not have severe black lung, only to have autopsies prove – after their deaths – that they had the disease.
Casey is among several lawmakers from coal producing states who have voiced concern following the ABC News-CPI report.
In an interview for ABC News’ original report, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, called the findings "a total, national disgrace."
"The deck is stacked in theory and in practice against coal miners, men and women, and it is tragic," he said.
Casey said the “serious and thought provoking” news reports “helped provide momentum” for the congressional hearing.
“There's still a good deal of legislative work we have to do to make sure we're putting in place a law, or the elements of a law, so that this kind of fraud can't be perpetrated again,” he told ABC News in June.
One of those scheduled to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety is the Labor Department's senior attorney, Patricia Smith. She told ABC News in June that the agency is 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," Casey said. "That they're not going to tolerate a system that's rigged."
The Labor Department action came in response to the report 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," Smith said.
A Labor Department bulletin sent out to district directors in June instructed them 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 a June email. "While our investigation is ongoing, nobody at Hopkins -- including Dr. Wheeler -- is performing" black lung X-ray readings.
Reached by phone in June, 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 then he was unmoved by the Labor Department bulletin. "They're not doctors," he said. "If they were from qualified medical institutions, I would be very unhappy."