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House Lawmakers Seek Federal Probe Of Black Lung Program

Two Democratic congressmen have formally asked the Labor Department's Inspector General to investigate "allegations of misconduct by doctors and lawyers working on behalf of the coal industry" and their roles in the denials of benefits for coal miners stricken with black lung disease.

In their letter, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and committee member Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) cite recent reports from the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News, which singled out the work of West Virginia law firm Jackson Kelly and physicians at Johns Hopkins Medical in Baltimore.

Miller and Courtney told Inspector General Scott Dahl that the year-long investigation by the two news organizations concluded that "doctors and lawyers have allegedly used medically and ethically questionable tactics to defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung."

The call for a federal investigation is just the latest response to the reports. Last week, Johns Hopkins suspended its program that, on behalf of coal mining companies, reviews X-rays of miners seeking compensation benefits for black lung disease. Dr. Paul Wheeler has routinely analyzed those X-rays for Johns Hopkins and rarely found positive indications of black lung, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Wheeler "found not a single case of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion," according to CPI's review of his work.

In defending his work, Wheeler responded that he has "always staked out the high ground."

Meanwhile, two Senate democrats — Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania — are working on legislation to better protect miners. ABC News reports that the Labor Department is "helping the senators craft the bill."

CPI reports that less than 10 percent of the coal miners seeking benefits under the federal black lung compensation system have been successful. The program is funded with federal and industry money.

Last year, CPI and NPR reported a resurgence of black lung in portions of Appalachia, along with a growing occurrence among younger miners and more rapid progression to the worst stages of the disease.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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