http://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/18/15548/bill-aims-stop-coal-companies-denying-benefits-miners-black-lung?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=watchdog&utm_medium=publici-email&goal=0_ffd1d0160d-722f67d16d-100026977&mc_cid=722f67d16d&mc_eid=9a086e6f56Bill aims to stop coal companies from denying benefits to miners with black lung
By Chris Hambyemail 8:16 am, September 18, 2014 Updated: 3:00 pm, September 18, 2014
Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety Chairman Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., shows an old picture of coal miners during a hearing in July of 2014. AP
Breathless and Burdened
Dying from black lung, buried by law and medicine.
Stories in this series
Labor Department unveils rule to protect coal miners following Center investigation
By Chris Hamby May 27, 2014
Coal industry’s go-to law firm withheld evidence of black lung, at expense of sick miners
By Chris Hamby October 29, 2013
Johns Hopkins medical unit rarely finds black lung, helping coal industry defeat miners’ claims
By Chris Hamby, Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk October 30, 2013
As experts recognize new form of black lung, coal industry follows familiar pattern of denial
By Chris Hamby November 1, 2013
Bill aims to stop coal companies from denying benefits to miners with black lung
By Chris Hamby September 18, 2014
Black lung disease surges to highs not seen since the ’70s, research shows
By Chris Hamby September 15, 2014
Black lung claims by 1,100 coal miners may have been wrongly denied
By Chris Hamby July 22, 2014
Labor Department issues warning about Hopkins doctor’s findings on black lung claims
By The Center for Public Integrity June 4, 2014
U.S. announces sweeping reforms to protect coal miners from black lung disease
By Chris Hamby April 23, 2014
Read ‘Breathless and Burdened’ via e-book
Click here for more stories in this investigation
Update, Sept. 18, 2014, 3:00 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional details about the proposed legislation and comments from Sen. Casey; the bill was not introduced today as planned.
Two coal-state senators plan to introduce sweeping legislation to reform the federal program meant to provide benefits to miners suffering from black lung disease.
For almost four decades, federal law has required coal companies to compensate miners who contract the debilitating and often deadly disease caused by breathing in coal dust. But companies have deployed strategies to avoid paying miners: Doctors working for coal companies have systematically misdiagnosed miners with black lung as having other diseases, and lawyers fighting miners’ claims have withheld evidence that the miners did, in fact, have black lung. These schemes were exposed last year in a major investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, partnering in part with ABC News.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, aims to put a stop to those strategies. “To say this is shameful is an understatement,” Casey said during a conference call Thursday, referencing the current state of the black lung benefits system.
The bill’s prospects for passage this year look dim because toxic partisan battles have made it hard to pass almost any legislation. Still, the bill marks a major milestone in the fight of mine workers to secure much-needed benefits. New legislation is particularly urgent, its sponsors say, because new evidence indicates that rates of the severe form of black lung have surged back to the highest levels since the 1970s, and more miners are seeking benefits. If changes are not made, the bill says, miners “with meritorious claims would not receive benefits.”
Casey acknowledged the challenging political climate and said he planned to push the bill in November. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll try it again in 2015,” he said. “If you believe in the founding principles of this country, it’s hard to be against these measures.”
The first installment of the CPI series focused on cases in which coal company lawyers had withheld evidence that showed miners had severe black lung, leading to wrongful denials of benefits. The legislation would require both sides to disclose all medical evidence developed during the claim. It also strengthens criminal provisions; doctors, lawyers, and claimants could face up to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for making false or knowingly misleading statements.
The second installment of the CPI series, reported in conjunction with ABC News, revealed that a unit of radiologists at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions had long been the go-to place for coal companies seeking negative chest X-ray readings to help defeat a benefits claim. The leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, had never found a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases dating to 2000, the investigation found. The legislation does not mention Wheeler or Johns Hopkins by name, but it references “a certain physician employed at a prominent medical center.”
The bill seeks to root out systematic bias in X-ray readings in multiple ways. It would establish a pilot program that would allow claimants, coal companies, or Labor Department officials to request a review of films by an expert panel convened by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal agency that certifies doctors to read X-rays for diseases such as black lung.