Monday, September 11, 2017

Watchdog journalism helped retired coal miner get black lung benefits after 14 years; many others don't

Brock (R) meets with Black Lung Association of Southwest
Virginia. (Inside Climate News photo by Lathan Goumas)
David Hasemyer of Inside Climate News brings an outrageous story about a former coal miner's 14-year battle to get medical benefits for black-lung disease -- and what he did to make sure other sufferers can get the help they need. Bethel Brock, 77, lives in the small town of Wise, Va., and was diagnosed with early stages of black lung in 1982. In 2003 he filed for black lung benefits from the insurer for his former employer, Westmoreland Coal Co.

"The company successfully fought him 10 times by maintaining he is not seriously stricken with the incapacitating disease despite nearly two dozen findings to the contrary by his doctors—and one by a doctor hired by the company, which it did not disclose to a U.S. Labor Department examiner deciding his case," Hasemyer reports.

In early 2017 Brock thought he might finally get benefits when the examiner, Debbie Weyandt, ruled him eligible. But months later she changed her mind because the latest X-ray documenting the spread of his disease didn't have a date stamp. When Inside Climate News started asking questions about the examiner's reversal, the supervisor decided the decision had been "in error" and said Brock would get his benefits after all. Then "a U.S. Department of Labor spokeswoman then asked if ICN would be changing the focus of this story about the black-lung benefits system," Hasemyer reports.

There are thousands of other black-lung sufferers who have tried and failed to get the benefits they were owed. Over the last decade, "of more than 52,000 claims, fewer than one in 10 was granted a disability award, despite the legal presumption that a miner with 15 years or more of service in the mines with lung problems has black lung as a result of his work," Hasenmeyer reports. "While rules were changed in 2000 to help level the playing field for miners, advocates, lawyers and statistics show companies still winning." Coal companies hire big-gun lawyers and medical experts, then overwhelm the plaintiff with appeals until the miner or his or her family dies or gives up, according to Shannon Bell, an associate sociology professor at Virginia Tech. One medical expert hired by Westmoreland who said Brock was not suffering from black lung "had not confirmed a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases he evaluated between 2000 and 2013, according to an investigation by reporter Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity. Hamby's series, 'Breathless and Burdened,' won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014," Hasemyer reports.

Brock's fight to receive his benefits inspired him to fight for others in the same situation. He went back to school at the University of Virginia for a degree in political science and credentialing as a paralegal, and spent the next eight years working for an attorney, helping other miners navigate the confusing process of getting black lung benefits. He's retired now, but still helps miners through the Black Lung Association of Southwest Virginia, a group he and other miners founded. At a recent meeting in Cleveland, Va., Brock said, "I am just one example of how the big coal companies use their money and influence to stand in the way of the benefits due miners who give their lives for coal company profit."

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