November 11, 2016 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

I’m not easily shocked to learn about injustice against workers. But my jaw hit the floor in fall 2013 when I read Chris Hamby’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning series on the lengths to which coal companies go to dispute that miners have coal-dust related lung disease (a.k.a. black lung.) My jaw hit the floor a second time when Hamby (then with the Center for Public Integrity) exposed that Johns Hopkins University and its employee Dr. Paul Wheeler where star players on the coal operators’ teams.

The families of Steve Day, 67, and Junior McCoy Barr, 79, have now filed a lawsuit against the university and the physician. The families’ lawsuit asserts that Johns Hopkins and Wheeler engaged

“in a pattern and practice with the intent to defraud at least hundreds of toxically injured coal miners of federally earned benefits.”

Medical care and monetary compensation for coal miners with lung disease (and survivor benefits) were established in 1969 by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The program is funded by an excise tax on coal with mine operators essentially functioning as the disability insurer for coal miners. As a result, the companies have a huge incentive to prevent disabled miners from obtaining benefits under the program.

The families of coal miners Day and Barr indicate that the Johns Hopkins Black Lung Program

“admittedly refused to abide by the International Labor Organization’s system [for classifying chest x-rays for dust-related diseases (i.e., pneumoconioses )] and substituted their own opinions in an effort to minimize the number of coal miners who would qualify for federal benefits.”

I asked Doug Parker, the Executive Director of WorkSafe and most recently deputy asst. secretary of labor for mine safety and health to comment on the lawsuit:

“I hope it provides a path to justice for the hundreds of miners and their widows who have wrongly suffered from both Black Lung and poverty due to the greed and arrogance of Dr. Wheeler, Hopkins, and the lawyers and coal companies who hired them.”

Chris Hamby’s reporting identified at least 280 cases in which Dr. Wheeler’s testimony was instrumental in the decision to deny the coal miner benefits, yet subsequent autopsies proved the miners were deserving of black lung benefits.

The lawsuit notes:

“In exchange for these opinions, Defendants were paid by the employer coal companies, and thereby retained financial benefits for deviating from  the ILO classification system and legal criteria for establishing coal workers’ pneumoconiosis under the Black Lung Benefits Act.”

Evan Smith, a staff attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said this to me about the recently filed lawsuit:

“The widows who were wrongly denied black lung benefits based on Dr. Wheeler’s opinions deserve relief. Because current law doesn’t allow most of them to reopen their old claims, their only hope—absent congressional action—is through litigation like this.”

I’m writing this post on Veterans Day. Both Mr. Day and Mr. Barr were U.S. veterans. They served during the Vietnam War and Korean War, respectively.

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