Speak Your Piece: Pulitzer’s Cold Comfort

The Center for Public Integrity wins a well-deserved Pulitzer for its investigation of the corrupt black-lung benefits program. But the political leaders who claim to be on the side of coal miners should have been paying attention long before the reporters made a national story out this disgraceful state of affairs.

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ABC News produced this report with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) on the role of Johns Hopkins doctors in refuting miners' black-lung claims. CPI won a Pulitzer Prize this week for their series on black lung.

I have mixed emotions over the Center for Public Integrity’s winning of their first Pulitzer Prize for the investigative report by Chris Hamby on black lung. 

The series focused on the southern West Virginia coalfields and miners who are suffering and dying from black lung, while the top lawyers, doctors, coal operators and hospitals are paying big bucks to each other to defeat these sick and voiceless miners and their families.

The people of the southern West Virginia coalfields owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Hamby, the Center for Public Integrity, ABC News and others for taking on what no one inside the region has been able to do – tell the world that the Appalachian coalfields are corrupt.

Workers like black lung attorney John Cline of Piney View, West Virginia, Dr. Donald Rasmussen of Beckley and many others have worked tirelessly to help these miners suffering from black lung in the face of this powerful and corrupt opposition. 

Surely, our political leaders, most of whom have been in office for decades, will not view this Pulitzer Prize lightly. An award of this magnitude should be a wakeup call our leaders. The outside world is now aware of the plight of the coalminer and his family. His work, his life, his death and the dreaded illness that cripples and kills him, black lung, are not to be taken lightly. Miners and those who depend on them deserve to be treated as human beings instead of high-stake pawns used by doctors, lawyers and hospitals as a money-making scheme, in which coal operators are willing to pay top dollar to see the disabled miner defeated.

West Virginia is at the top of every negative survey list you come across. Public opinion polls are having a field day painting negative portrayals of West Virginia, and they have the statistics to back up their claims. This is hurtful and disturbing. But it doesn’t take a degree in clinical psychology to understand why coalfield residents have reason to be miserable or depressed when those in control of your work, livelihood and health are working against you.

 

Part of the award-winning series analyzed the actions of Johns Hopkins radiologist Paul Wheeler, whose diagnoses routinely ruled out black lung even when other doctors found evidence of the disease.

Our political leaders have let the miner down. This report, “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” proves that the black-lung benefits program has been rigged against the miner for years.

Senator Jay Rockefeller was one of the first West Virginia political leaders to respond to the Center for Public Integrity’s report. He requested a formal investigation into the black-lung benefits system. Yet his wife serves on the board of Johns Hopkins Medicine, which was part of the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation. A Johns Hopkins radiologist, Dr. Paul Wheeler, read thousands of lung X-rays and never diagnosed a single case of complicated black lung. The investigation found that when other doctors diagnosed black lung, Wheeler was likely to say that miners’ lung conditions were the result of tuberculosis or other diseases. Subsequent biopsies or autopsies showed that Wheeler was wrong in more than 100 cases.

I realize Johns Hopskins Medicine is large and has many divisions. A board member could easily be unaware of the operations of a single part of the institution. But if Gary Fox (the deceased West Virginia coalminer whose story was part of the Pulitzer-winning report) had told Senator Rockefeller what was going on with his black lung benefit claim, would he have gotten the same response that Senator Rockefeller gave after the publication of the Center for Public Integrity report?

Or would any of the other coalfield politicians (such as Capito, Rahall, or Joe Manchin) have responded in a similar fashion? They all say they are behind the coalminer. What have they done for the coalminer? Have they even responded to the letter from Mary Fox, Gary’s widow? Why does it take reporters, lights, cameras and millions of viewers to get a politician’s attention? They are elected to look out for the best interests of their constituents, whether or not there’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist watching them. This system is broken.

Betty Dotson-Lewis is from West Virginia and is the author of several books on Appalachian heritage and social issues.

 

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