Thursday, October 31, 2013

'Nightline' to examine hospitals paid by coal companies to examine claims of black lung disease

UPDATE, Nov. 4: Johns Hopkins Medicine has suspended its black lung program pending a review in response to the "Nightline" report, ABC News reports. "Officials with the United Mine Workers, the labor union that represents coal miners, expressed outrage at the ABC News report and called on the federal agency that oversees the nationwide network of doctors who read X-rays in black lung cases to prohibit Wheeler from further involvement in black lung cases." (Read more)

Earlier this week the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism center, reported that Jackson Kelly, the leading law firm that defends coal companies when miners file lawsuits over black-lung disease, has a record of withholding evidence. In some cases, Jackson Kelly's own doctors found evidence of cancer, but the law firm kept quiet about it, referring instead to doctors hired by the plaintiff who didn't search for, or find, evidence of black lung disease. The issue has now drawn national attention, and the next episode of "Nightline" will delve into the issue.

The head of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions "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," ABC reports. "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 '80s.'" For each X-ray Wheeler reads, coal companies pay Johns Hopkins $750, about 10 times more than a miner might pay for the same service. Wheeler told ABC, "It would matter to me if I were wrong, and no one's proven to me that I'm wrong."

ABC reports: "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—or less than 10 percent who initially applied—actually receive them." (Read more) (Here is an excerpt from the story. The full report will air on ABC at 12:35 a.m. ET.)

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