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Top Hospital Suspends Black Lung Program After ABC News Report

ABC News (BALTIMORE) -- Johns Hopkins Medicine has suspended its black lung program pending a review in response to an ABC News investigation with the Center for Public Integrity that showed how medical opinions from doctors at the prestigious hospital have helped the coal companies thwart efforts by ailing mine workers to receive disability benefits.

During the report, which aired on World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the treatment of coal miners "a national disgrace."

"Following the news report we are initiating a review of the [black lung X-ray reading] service," said a statement issued late Friday by Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Until the review is completed, we are suspending the program."

Hopkins decision came as United States senators from coal country announced they have begun working on new legislation to address "troubling concerns" prompted by this week's reports.

"This new report raises a number of troubling concerns," said a statement from U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey, D-Pa., Friday. "It is imperative that miners receive fair treatment and are not victimized at any point in the system. I am working closely with Senator Rockefeller to develop new legislation to address this problem."

In an interview with ABC News, Rockefeller said it was "tragic" that ailing coal miners were battling high-priced lawyers and doctors hired by coal companies when they tried to obtain disability benefits reserved for workers afflicted with black lung disease. And more than 90 percent of the time, the miners were losing those battles.

At the center of the ABC News report was the work performed by Dr. Paul Wheeler, who heads a unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital where radiologists read X-rays of coal miners seeking black lung benefits. 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, a review by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity found. In recent court testimony, Wheeler said the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung, a finding that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits under a special federal program, was in "the 1970's or the early 80's."

Officials with the United Mine Workers, the labor union that represents coal miners, expressed outrage at the ABC News report and called on the federal agency that oversees the nationwide network of doctors who read X-rays in black lung cases to prohibit Wheeler from further involvement in black lung cases.

"Whatever penalties or punitive actions that can be taken with respect to Dr. Wheeler should be," said Phil Smith, the spokesman for the union. "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."

Earlier Friday, Johns Hopkins Medicine posted a statement on its website saying the hospital was "carefully reviewing" the media report and the top-ranked hospital's black lung unit.

"We take very seriously the questions raised in a recent ABC News report about our second opinions for … black lung disease, and we are carefully reviewing the news story and our [black lung] service," the statement said.

Prior to the airing of the report on Wednesday, Hopkins sent a written statement to ABC News, strongly defending Dr. Wheeler and saying "to our knowledge, no medical or regulatory authority has ever challenged or called into question any of our diagnoses, conclusions or reports" from the black lung program.

The news report triggered a vocal response from lawmakers and advocates for miners about the challenges the coal workers were confronting when trying to obtain the monthly disability payments from their employers.

"This scathing report lays bare for the public something miners and their families in the coal fields have known for decades," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and a former president of the union's affiliate, the United Mine Workers. "Even with my years of experience in the mines and as a union leader, knowing full well that coal companies have been cheating miners since the day coal was hand loaded and weighed … I was sickened and angered" by the report.

"You don't have to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins to know black lung disease when you see it," said Trumka, who noted that his father died from the disease.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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