Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung disease, is a preventable, occupational lung disease caused by long exposure to coal dust. In a recent series of investigative reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity, a prestigious medical hospital in Maryland was exposed for covering up thousands of cases of miners who had contracted the disease and who were ultimately denied benefits.
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions received millions of dollars from coal companies for reading chest X-rays yet rarely confirming that miners are suffering from black lung disease. This famed teaching hospital has been the subject of an investigation for the past year by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity after miners were told they didn’t have black lung and therefore could not collect benefits.
At the center of the controversy is Dr. Paul Wheeler, age 78, who is the leader of the medical unit that reads the miners’ chest X-rays and CT scans on behalf of the coal companies. Dr. Wheeler and his team of radiologists issue reports based on what they determine the X-rays show. Those reports are then used to confirm or deny whether the miner has black lung disease.
Coal companies have relied on the expertise and stellar reputation of Johns Hopkins for the past 40 years. Even though the doctors read the chest films as part of their regular duties, the university charges the coal companies up to 10 times more than what the miners pay their personal physicians. According to past judicial opinions on file with the U.S. Department of Labor, Dr. Wheeler often testifies that the findings of other doctors who had previously determined the X-rays showed black lung disease were, in fact, indications of something else such as cancer, tuberculosis and other lung diseases. As a result, the miner’s claim is denied.
Johns Hopkins has now suspended the program and Senators Robert Casey (D-PA) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) are working to right legislation to correct the wrong and strengthen protection of miners.