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Courtney wants probe of coal miner benefits program

December 2, 2013
In The News

U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D- 2nd District, has joined a colleague from California in calling for a federal investigation of alleged misconduct by doctors and lawyers said to be working on behalf of the coal industry. The request to the U.S. Labor Department by Courtney and Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, follows a yearlong probe of a benefits program for coal miners with pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington, D.C. The investigation alleged that doctors and lawyers used medically and ethically questionable tactics to defeat the claims of minors with the disease, according to the congressmen.

The two lawmakers are members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has oversight and legislative jurisdiction over the benefits program. In a letter to the Labor Department’s inspector general, Courtney and Miller also cited revelations about doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland helping coal companies “thwart efforts by ailing mine workers to receive disability benefits.” Included was a report that the head of a Johns Hopkins unit in which radiologists read the X-rays of coal minors seeking benefits hadn’t found a case of black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion.

The lawmakers also referred to a report about a West Virginia law firm, Jackson Kelly PLLC, which was said to have deliberately withheld key evidence from the Labor Department, their own expert witnesses, and benefits claimants and presented incomplete or potentially misleading evidence. “The investigative report suggests that there has been a pattern and practice by lawyers at the Jackson Kelly law firm, which has compromised the integrity of the black lung benefits program and potentially tainted numerous decisions adversely affecting coal miners and their survivors,” they wrote. Courtney and Miller also noted that in response to the media reports, Johns Hopkins had suspended its black lung program.