Big Money, Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies

Some coal miners told their illness didn't come from years in the mines; benefits blocked.
4:05 | 10/30/13

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Transcript for Big Money, Black Lung and Doctors for the Coal Companies
We turn to an abc news investigation into a new fight for workers who embody america's can do spirit. Coal miners. They do one of the testifiest jobs in the world and tonight they are battling the companies they have worked for their entire lives. Brian ross is here with this exclusive report. Good evening, brian. Reporter: Good evening. Black lung remains the scourge of the coal country. Yet we found that big coal companies have been able to avoid playing millions of dollars to coal miners thanks largely to doctors in the country's top hospitals. Reporter: Steve's doctors found he had black lung from breathing in so much coal dust. The disease scars and shrinks the lungs. My doctors say my lungs are shot. Reporter: He says he can't be far from oxygen and in 2005 he was awarded a $1,000 a month disability benefit under a federal program for coal miners with black lung. But day's coal company appealed the case and then won after it hired a doctor at one of the country's most prestigious hospitals, johns hopkins in baltimore. Dr. Paul wheeler found day did not have disabling black lung, the same opinion he has given against hundreds of coal miners who also been denied benefits. For dr. Wheeler's opinions, the coal companies have paid hopkins millions of dollars. You have essentially become dr. No. You never find. I do find. Reporter: According to records from the last 13 years, examined by abc news and the center for public integrity, of 1,573 cases dr. Wheeler never found a single case that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits, not one. You stand by all those cases? Absolutely. That's my opinion and I have a perfect right to my opinion. Reporter: Based on the opinions of dr. Wheeler and a small circle of other expensive doctors, coal miners across appalachia, men like mack lester are fighting a losing battle to get black lung benefits. At best fewer than one in ten is successful. I have no idea what happens once the x-rays leave my department. Does it matter to you? It would matter to me if i were wrong and no one has proven to me that I'm wrong. Reporter: We found he's been wrong a lot in over 100 cases including that of gary fox. It was only after fox died that an autopsy proved fox had black lung. After wheeler's opinion had been used to deny him benefits for ten years. It's a total national disgrace. The deck is stacked in theory and in practice against coal miners, men and women, and it is tragic. Reporter: And in the case of steve day, we sent his medical file to the doctor who once oversaw the government's extra screening program for black lung, dr. Jack parker. This is a classic case of black lung. Any doubt about it in your mind? No doubt whatsoever. This represents advanced black lung disease. Reporter: But it comes too late for steve day who says his doctors have told him he now has only a few months to live because of a deadly black lung disease that dr. Wheeler said he did not have. It's unfair and if he doesn't have black lung, black lung never did exist for anybody. Reporter: Yet, dr. Wheeler's opinion for the coal companies continues to carry the day in one black lung benefit case after another based largely on his credentials from johns hopkins which says it has no reason to doubt the findings. There is movement in congress on this? Senator rockefeller introduced legislation to pursue what he calls the injustice between the coal company and the miners but he says it's a tough fight. They suffer in silence and there hasn't been much attention paid to it until tonight. Now a story about a modern day good samaritan, a bus driver

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