Johns Hopkins Defies Senator Over Black Lung Probe

Med center refuses to release results of internal review of black lung program.

— -- The CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine has turned down U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, Jr.’s request for the results of internal review of the renowned medical center’s controversial radiology program, which for years read X-rays of coal miners on behalf of coal companies and rarely found those miners to have serious black lung disease.

“John Hopkins’ decision not to release the black lung report is troubling,” Casey told ABC News. “What’s needed is a full accounting of what occurred in John Hopkins’ black lung program so the families have the answers they deserve.”

Hopkins launched the internal review in 2013, two days after the broadcast of a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity that looked at more than 1,700 cases Hopkins physicians took up on behalf of coal companies over a decade. In those cases, Hopkins’ leading black lung expert, Dr. Paul S. Wheeler, never concluded, even once, that a miner had severe black lung.

The ABC News-CPI investigation found Hopkins was paid millions of dollars to have doctors from the renowned hospital render their expert opinions in black lung benefits cases. Scores of those medical readings were used by coal company attorneys to thwart claims from coal miners who believed they were entitled federal financial relief because they had been stricken with black lung disease while working underground.

After the broadcast, Johns Hopkins suspended the program, pending the outcome of the internal review.

Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the school has completed its review, but has not released any results.

Casey demanded to see the findings of the internal review in March in a letter to Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Rothman, saying it should be published “in the interest of full disclosure and transparency.”

Rothman wrote in a response dated April 6 that the internal review was conducted by “outside counsel” and was considered to be confidential. Rothman shared that Johns Hopkins doctors have not resumed reading lung X-rays for the coal industry.

He said the Baltimore-based medical institution supports “efforts to better understand the important public health issues surrounding coal mining and to ensure, including through implementation of appropriate safeguards, that the black lung benefits claims process is fair and just for all parties involved.”

A Casey spokesman said the senator was not satisfied. The senator said “the contents of this report are about much more than the internal workings of John Hopkins -- they’re about the lives of coal miners who may have had their black lung claims wrongly denied.”

“John Hopkins’ decision not to restart its black lung program is further validation of the concerns raised by former coal miners, their families and reporters from ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity,” Casey said.

In his initial letter to Rothman, Casey wrote, “There are still many questions left unanswered following the revelation that since 2000 Dr. Wheeler had not found one case of complicated pneumoconiosis in over 1,500 black lung claims and in more than 3,400 x-ray readings.”

Wheeler has told ABC News that his medical opinions were justified, and based on years of training. A Hopkins spokeswoman told ABC News earlier in March that “decisions coming out of the review are being deliberated.”