A three-part story published this week by investigative journalists found that workers in the mining industry afflicted with black lung have been largely unsuccessful in efforts to sue for benefits as a result of collusion between the mining companies, their lawyers and a stable of doctors.
The groundbreaking report, Breathless and Burdened, was a collaborative project between writers and producers from The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News. The Center’s Chris Hamby spent more than a year digging through records and interviewing witnesses in Appalachia’s coal country. The reports’ findings suggest that mining companies work with legal teams that specialize in black lung cases, and that those lawyers consult with a select group of doctors who generally provide testimony favorable to their clients.
Following this week’s release of the report, Johns Hopkins University halted their black lung program to investigate findings that one of its doctors is complicit with the black lung claims denial process according to the Baltimore Sun. The Baltimore Sun report states that Hopkins’ Dr. Paul Wheeler provided reviews of more than 1,570 claims, of which he denied every one of them as being black lung. It was further noted that, ”...coal companies pay a premium for Hopkins' services, which cost up to 10 times more than miners typically pay their physicians for an X-ray reading.”
Wheeler is just one of many doctors who are regularly consulted for black lung claims by mining company legal teams such as Jackson Kelly PLLC. Hamby’s reporting found that not all doctors were as consistent as Wheeler, but that on the occasion where a doctor provided a consultation that was favorable to miner’s claims the legal team simply withheld that report and used another, more favorable report.
The result has been a dearth of successful claims. Of those that are successful, mining companies often appeal and halt the reward, reverse it or simply drain the miner’s resources over the course of a prolonged, expensive legal battle. Hamby found that in the past five years more than 23,000 claims were filed, but that only about 14 percent were initially successful, and that an undetermined number of those were later appealed.
Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) estimate that 1,500 former coal miners die each year as a result of complications from black lung. A form of pneumoconiosis, it has been described as a particularly miserable way to die. In a previous report by the Center for Public Integrity issued in 2012 about the resurgence of black lung, a doctor who treats victims likened it to a form of torture.
“No human being should have to go through the misery that dying of [black lung] entails,” said Dr. Edward Petsonk, who works with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “It is like a screw being slowly tightened across your throat. Day and night towards the end, the miner struggles to get enough oxygen. It is really almost a diabolical torture.”
Experts state that black lung is entirely preventable, and UMWA communications director Phil Smith told the West Virginia Gazette that it’s time for the Obama administration to implement new rules to protect miners.
"We know what causes black lung and we know how to prevent it," said Smith. "That people are still getting black lung means that either the respirable dust standards are too low or the companies aren't abiding by those standards -- or both."