lungsA physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions who is paid – by coal companies – ten times the amount to interpret x-rays that other doctors charge for the service has not found a single case of severe black lung disease in more than 1,500 x-rays – findings used to deny miners black lung benefits.

A joint yearlong investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity discovered that Dr. Paul Wheeler, head of the Hopkins unit that reads x-rays in black lung cases, has been wrong in at least 100 cases in which autopsies or biopsies later found black lung after Wheeler had read the X-rays as negative. 

Wheeler testified in court that the last time he found 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 early 80's.

Black lung rare?

Wheeler told ABC News that he considers black lung to be relatively rare and expressed concern that some miners might be trying to cheat the companies by falsely claiming to have black lung.

Other experts in black lung questioned Wheeler's medical views Dr. Michael Brooks, a radiologist at the University of Kentucky who sees thousands of black lung cases, told ABC News that Wheeler's results were "either a case of someone really having no idea of what they're doing or being willfully misleading. One of those two possibilities."

Millions paid to Johns Hopkins

The investigation found that coal companies have paid millions of dollars to Johns Hopkins over the last decade.

U.S. Senator Robert Casey, D-Pa., said he and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. are using the information in  the reports to strengthen legislation to protect miners that was previously introduced by Rockefeller.  

“The system didn't work” for ailing miners, Casey said. “Their government failed them as well as their company failing. So we have, I think, an abiding obligation to right this wrong.”

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