Hospital Suspends Black Lung Program Under Black Cloud

A multipart story investigating how Johns Hopkins Medicine assessed coal miners’ claims of suffering from black lung disease has prompted suspension of its program. “Breathless and Burdened,” a yearlong effort by the Center for Public Integrity (Center), examined how doctors and lawyers, allegedly at the behest of the coal industry, helped to deny benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of those workers turn to a system that is supposed to help alleviate their suffering.

As announced earlier this month by the Center and ABC News Johns Hopkins has suspended its black lung program while it reviews how medical opinions from its doctors helped coal companies deny disability benefits to sick miners.

“Following the news report we are initiating a review of the pneumoconiosis B-reader service [black lung X-ray reading],” read a statement by the medical facility. “Until the review is completed, we are suspending the program.”

“We take very seriously the questions raised in a recent ABC News report about our second opinions for pneumoconiosis including black lung disease, and we are carefully reviewing the news story and our pneumoconiosis service.”

Johns Hopkins said its diagnoses and reports have never been questioned by authorities, and that there are no financial incentives for the department or its personnel associated with the black lung program.

Caused by inhaling coal dust, pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, compromises lung function and makes breathing increasingly difficult. There is no treatment or cure.

The decision to suspend the program, according to the Center/ABC story, was made as congressional representatives from coal states said they have begun working on new legislation to address “troubling concerns” raised in the report.

The focus is on Dr. Paul Wheeler, head of the Johns Hopkins unit that read X-rays of coal miners seeking black lung benefits. Since 2000, more than 1,500 cases have been decided in which his unit rendered an opinion. In how many of those cases did Wheeler find severe black lung?

Not one.

Wheeler testified in court that the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung, a diagnosis that qualifies a miner to receive federal benefits, was in “the 1970s or the early 80s.”

As reported last year by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, “Incidence of the disease that steals the breath of coal miners doubled in the last decade, according to data analyzed by … the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).”

In some areas, cases of black lung disease have quadrupled since the 1980s.

That something is rotten in the state of Johns Hopkins’ department of radiology prompted outrage from miner advocates, including the United Mine Workers, the union that represents coal miners.

“You don’t have to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins to know black lung disease when you see it,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and a former president of the union’s affiliate, the United Mine Workers. Trumka noted that his father died from the disease.

“Whatever penalties or punitive actions that can be taken with respect to Dr. Wheeler should be,” Phil Smith, spokesman for the union, told the Center/ABC. “But whatever they are, they will pale in comparison to the pain and suffering he has caused thousands of afflicted miners. There is no penalty which will make up for that.”

For his part, Wheeler told the journalists that he stood by his opinions.

If you read the series of stories, you’ll wonder why.

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