(NEW YORK) — Nearly a year-and-a-half after Johns Hopkins Hospital promised to investigate reports that medical opinions from doctors at the prestigious hospital were skewed to favor coal companies over America’s coal miners, the hospital says it has completed its review – but it will not share the results.
“The review has always been intended as an internal evaluation and will remain confidential,” said Kim Hoppe, a hospital spokeswoman.
Hoppe said Johns Hopkins doctors have not resumed reading lung x-rays for the coal industry, which paid millions of dollars to have doctors from the renowned hospital render their expert opinions in black lung benefits cases. Scores of those medical readings were used by coal company attorneys to thwart claims from coal miners who believed they were entitled federal financial relief because they had been stricken with black lung disease while working underground.
“The [black lung x-ray] program remains suspended,” Hoppe said. “Decisions coming out of the review are being deliberated.”
The hospital announced the internal review two days after the broadcast of a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity which looked at more than 1,700 cases the hospital took up on behalf of coal companies over a decade, in which Hopkins’ leading black lung expert, Dr. Paul S. Wheeler, never concluded, even once, that a miner had severe black lung.
Among the miners affected by Dr. Wheeler’s x-ray readings was Michael “Steve” Day of West Virginia, who died in 2014. As in dozens of other cases, an autopsy found that, contrary to Dr. Wheeler’s opinion, Day did indeed have advanced black lung disease and should have been eligible for benefits.
“It proved to everybody that [Dr. Wheeler] was wrong,” said Patience Day Williams, Steve Day’s daughter. “We knew it all along.”
Day’s autopsy report said his lungs were clogged with coal dust – the disease had spread into 85 percent of his lungs. Wheeler had read his x-rays as negative for severe black lung, arguing that despite 34 years working in underground coal mines, Day’s lung problems could have been the result of a fungal disorder common in the Ohio River Valley. A pulmonary expert interviewed by ABC News last year, Dr. Jack Parker of West Virginia University, called that conclusion “intellectually dishonest.”
In brief comments to ABC News after the initial report aired, Wheeler continued to defend his findings, saying he believes the Hopkins review will prove that his conclusions were justified.
“Johns Hopkins commends all efforts to review the federal Black Lung Benefits Program to ensure the claims process is fair and just for all parties involved,” Hoppe said in an email in to ABC News.
Since announcing the probe, Hopkins officials repeatedly refused to answer ABC News questions about their look into the issues raised in last year’s series of reports on the obstacles that ailing miners were encountering when trying to collect federal black lung benefits. The hospital declined to make anyone involved in the internal review available for an interview, and declined to answer questions about who conducted the independent look back.
Wheeler told ABC News in an interview earlier this year that the review was overseen by a top Washington, D.C. law and lobbying firm.
Since the ABC News report, the Department of Labor has ruled that coal miners can reapply for benefits if the coal company had relied on Wheeler’s medical opinions for their case.
With help from an attorney, Day immediately reapplied for his roughly $1,000 monthly disability benefit. Word arrived two months after his death that the Department of Labor approved his benefit.
“If Dad had been here, honey, I bet you anything he’d be hootin’ and hollerin’,” Day’s daughter said. “I think that he would find great justice in it.”
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