Investigation: Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies

Miners told their sickness not caused by decades underground.
9:59 | 10/31/13

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Transcript for Investigation: Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies
What -- big hospitals and big mining companies have in common. In -- country hundreds of miners who say they are suffered from debilitating lung disease say they are not getting the financial support they are -- And a year long ABC news investigation shows some of the coal company's most important allies in fighting the miners. Are prominent doctors from a world renowned hospital. ABC's Brian Ross for Nightline investigate -- He's had mole or a hard look. Thin -- min could stand -- After years of working in America's coal mines are hard lives are honored and soulful ballads black -- -- -- -- It -- -- Fox's death and finally prove -- political company doctors tried to did not you don't. That as his autopsy -- fox did have the deadly -- -- treating disease called black. The result of breathing and called that shrinks and scars -- -- When you put it and evil in 21 and one of these monitors what comes back out with a needle is. Black liquid it's. It's like something out of the X-Files. This is a story that begins in coal country with the miners out of breath and out of -- But ended up taking us to one of the nation's top hospitals that tough questions about big money and black law. Gary fox died at the age of 58 denied for ten years seven to 900 dollars or so a month. He would have been due under a special federal program for months. Had the coal company doctors this one and this -- found he had disabling black -- But they did -- -- after. And carry fox is just one of hundreds of coal -- then like -- Lester. Shortly before it. Men like Steve day I'm -- -- Milan got. Some of the hundreds of miners who a year long joint investigation by ABC news and the Center for Public Integrity found. Have been quietly battling and losing against big coal companies. Other prominent expensive. Doctors it's a total national disgrace the deck is stacked. In theory and in practiced against coal -- men and women and it is tragic. Black -- remains the scourge of coal country. Yet big coal companies have been able to avoid paying millions of dollars in black lung benefits to alien minors. Thanks largely to their doctors to as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller. You can hardly do -- but just cried -- rage. Was sadness. In the case of the late Gary fox one of the first doctors to -- company asked to review his records was doctor Gregory Fino along specialist from Pittsburgh. Who certainly stands out in Appalachia in his red Porsche. Several judges had described doctor Fino as -- style to the black lung program and biased in his findings. Doctor feels -- and Gary fox. Black -- not present. -- feel good morning. I'm Brian Ross from ABC news from trying to get a hold of my area ask about your work group of homeowners for the Coca after. When we caught up -- -- -- while he told us he is not -- and -- disabling that -- -- -- about 12% of the time. Meaning most of the time he does not. And he refused to even look at the autopsy reports of Gary fox. That did indeed find black -- This is an -- mister Gary fox would you take a look at. But I -- -- -- But our investigation found that perhaps the coal company's most important ally. To whom they have paid millions of dollars over the years. Is the prestigious Johns Hopkins hospital in -- of and in particular the longtime head of the black lung unit ad -- Doctor Paul Wheeler who says it only takes him a quick look at X rays to spot the most severe cases -- black lung that automatically qualify for benefits. It's so you can tell -- second to destroy you tell your father as different from your mother they represent the masses in various parts of one. And for his work the coal companies pay Hopkins 750. Dollars for each X -- he reads from Blackwell. About ten times the about miners typically pay their doctor. Why are they paying you so much more. I think it has to do with the name of the hospital you don't mind being the coal companies. Doctor. Well I can be myself as the admitted doctor for -- Number of companies not just -- comments for the coal companies it -- money well spent. By no means does every miner who applies for benefits necessarily have black -- But of available records -- the last thirteen years examined by ABC news and the Center for Public Integrity. We found that of some 1573. Cases. Doctor Wheeler never found a single case of severe black lung at any coal -- not one. Doctor Wheeler acknowledged our fight -- you stand by all those cases absolutely. That's my opinion and -- that have -- have a perfect right in my opinion you become essentially Dr. know. -- never find. No I do find black -- not not according to what we've seen. Not the severe black and that allows minors to automatically collect benefits. Hopkins says their doctors have confirmed thousands of cases compatible with black -- over the last forty years. But would not say how many were severe black -- In court testimony last year. Doctor Wheeler said the last time he recalled diagnosing the case of severe black -- was in the 1970s. Or early eighties in your reports and your testimony has led. Hundreds of thousands of miners to be denied benefits that they think they deserve I have no idea what happens once the -- the -- department doesn't matter to you. It would matter to me if -- were wrong. And -- -- proven to me that I'm wrong. But our investigation found he's been wrong a lot. Based on more than 100 cases of miners in which autopsy is or biopsy -- later found black -- after doctor Wheeler had not. He read their X rays as negative what do you say about -- doctor. That the doctors should not be working. At Hopkins university or anywhere else. I'm very close to Hopkins my wife is on the the health part of board. Of Hopkins. And I think it's a disgrace I'm shocked to hear that. Hopkins itself receives the money directly paid by the -- companies in a written statement to ABC news Johns Hopkins strongly defends doctor Wheeler and says to our knowledge no medical or regulatory authority has ever challenged -- called into question. Any of our diagnoses conclusions are reports from the black lung program. -- nine. Backbone. You're just bad -- -- But doctor -- findings are disrupting lives all across -- country Steve day says he's been told he only has a few more months to live. Diagnose and black lung by the veterans administration and his own doctors he can't be far from his oxygen tanks and cannot sleep lying down. And -- cults. The black. Will steal -- -- And did kill me you don't have black -- It would take full and we'll leave it. -- in 2005. The coal company appealed and doctor Wheeler Hopkins says today's X rays did not show the disabling form of -- lost. -- company want. And days 1000 dollar a month benefit was canceled -- -- at the time. If I -- and -- Mecca displeasure. You think he's doing the work of the Coca. -- they took time ago we set the X rays of Steve day to Jack Parker at West Virginia University. He once oversaw the government's X ray screening program for blood -- this is a classic case of -- is there any doubt about it. No doubt whatsoever this represents advanced black lung disease doctor Wheeler had found the X rays were compatible with tuberculosis. -- -- fungal lung infection caused by bird and -- -- that's so unlikely that I believe the chances of -- those other diseases is zero. 00 chance zero chance so for somebody to make that diagnosis. That surprise you. If it does surprise me and more important I think it disappoints me. Would you say that diagnosis other -- black -- was intellectually dishonest yes. Intellectually dishonest yes -- But doctor Wheeler says he is protecting the system. By keeping miners and collecting black lung benefits for a disease he says they did not board do not have. That would seem to be inappropriate. To me that they're getting -- for something they don't either they don't have. Reminder Steve day he worries he will be out of breath before he can prove his case. And the suggestion that he and his family are somehow trying to cheat. Just one final insult from a system. He says has left them feeling betrayed. My kids -- -- used. My brain child it's cheated. He's cheated and it's unfair. And if he doesn't have black color and black -- neighbor data exist for anybody. And every lines. -- and his -- For Nightline. Brian Ross ABC news in -- for West Virginia.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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