‘Cutthroat’ Tactics Block Black-Lung Claims

A year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals a system in which the coal industry purchases the high-priced expertise of prestigious lawyers and doctors to fight black-lung benefits claims. Miners, on the other hand, struggle by “breathless and burdened.”

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As the incidence of black lung disease is on the increase, doctors and lawyers working on behalf of the coal industry engage “cutthroat” tactics to help defeat the benefits claims of miners who are sick and dying, an investigative report reveals.

The Center for Public Integrity conducted a year-long investigation of the black-lung disease benefits system, which is supposed to compensate coal miners for the illness. Black lung is a respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of mineral dust that results from mining. (The complete report is available here.)

Among the findings in the report are the following:

  • The prominent law firm Jackson Kelly has withheld evidence of black lung in cases over the years, helping defeat the benefits claims of sick miners. Public Integrity’s report called the move “part of a cutthroat approach to fighting miners’ claims that [the law firm] has employed to great effect for decades. … Some of the firm’s tactics go beyond aggressive advocacy, crossing into unethical behavior, according to current and former judges, lawyers and state disciplinary officials. As a result, sick and dying miners have been denied the modest benefits and affordable medical care that would allow them to survive and support their families.”
  •  “Coal companies rely on a cadre of doctors with prestigious affiliations, including a unit at the nation’s top-ranked hospital, to trump the opinions of miners’ physicians. Experts for hire continue a century-old tradition: denying scientific evidence that black lung can assume different appearances in different people, locking an entire class of sick miners out of the benefits system.”
  • Coal companies pay Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions 10 times the rate coal miners typically pay to have chest X-rays read as part of medical evidence for benefits claims. The Johns Hopkins doctors who read the X-rays have sided with coal companies in nearly all of proceedings where miners are attempting to win black-lung benefits. In cases where some doctors have allowed the possibility of X-rays indicating black lung, they frequently indicate some other disease is the more likely cause.
  • One doctor, Paul Wheeler, “never once found the severe form of the disease, complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Other doctors looking at the X-rays found this advanced stage of the disease in 390 of the [1,500] cases.”
  • Tissue samples taken from miners’ lungs (sometimes after death) have disproven Wheeler’s diagnosis “again and again,” the Center for Public Integrity reports. Yet the Johns Hopkins name carries such prestige, it is often sufficient to deny miners of black lung benefits.

Public Integrity reporter Chris Hambry said he was drawn to the investigation when in 2012 he covered the resurgence of black-lung disease among coal miners. After completing that report, he started digging into the black-lung benefits program.

“Slowly, I was drawn into this world of administrative courts and arcane rules that touches thousands of lives each year,” Hambry writes in a backgrounder on the series. “There was a widespread sense among miners and their advocates that the deck was stacked against them…. Troubling questions emerged: Were significant numbers of sick and dying miners really being wrongfully denied benefits? And, if so, how could this be happening? ‘Breathless and Burdened’ begins answering these questions. Over the course of about a year of reporting, it became clear that miners with classic signs of black lung indeed were being caught in the maw of a complex system, left with nothing, litigated to death.”

The report is based on thousands of previously classified legal filings. Hambry created his own database of medical evidence and interviewed miners and their families in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.

Federal black-lung benefits began in 1969 as part of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Hambry reports that in 2012 about 14% of black-lung claims led to an award by the Labor Department. But appeals likely reduce that percentage, he wrote, and “no definitive statistics are available.” 

A third intallment of the series will be published Friday. 

 

Topics: Health
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