Johns Hopkins Sued by Families of Coal Miners

     BALTIMORE (CN) — After shutting down its “black lung” program more than a year ago, Johns Hopkins Hospital is under fire for claims it didn’t follow federal guidelines in determining hundreds of coal miners were not qualified for disability benefits.
     The estates of Michael Steven Day Sr. and Junior McCoy Barr filed a class-action lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University, its hospital and Dr. Paul Wheeler in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Friday, claiming doctors skirted the law to deny benefits to miners.
     The alleged improprieties by Johns Hopkins Imaging doctors was uncovered in a 2013 report by the Center for Public Integrity finding that Wheeler deviated from the International Labour Organization’s standards for determining if coal miners suffered from coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or CWP.
     CWP is also known as “black lung disease,” court records show. Johns Hopkins established its “black lung program” to help determine the presence or absence of CWP in coal miners seeking benefits under the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
     Johns Hopkins shut down its black-lung unit shortly after the Center for Public Integrity’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series that uncovered improprieties of the doctors reading chest x-rays used to determine if sufferers of the disease qualified for disability benefits.
     “The black lung program failed to identify black lung disease in hundreds of coal workers, many of which were denied benefits as a direct and proximate result,” according to the 31-page lawsuit.
     The estates of Day and Barr claim that Johns Hopkins and Wheeler “were paid by employer coal companies” for their opinions.
     In an interview with a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, Wheeler allegedly admitted that the standards for B-readers, radiological experts certified to interpret chest x-rays for the presence of CWP, set by the International Labour Organization, or ILO, have “some quality issues.”
     Wheeler also admitted during the interview that “he has intentionally disregarded the ILO classification system, due to his beliefs as to what the law should be,” according to Friday’s lawsuit, which quoted Wheeler as saying, “If you think it’s appropriate for somebody with sarcoid to be paid for [black lung] because he has masses and nodules – do you think that’s appropriate? I don’t think so.”
     According to the estate plaintiffs, Wheeler’s statement flies in the face of the standards set by the ILO.
     Wheeler reportedly told the Center for Public Integrity, “I don’t care about the law.”
     The doctor’s determinations were used to deny benefits in cases before administrative law judges, according to the complaint.
     Regulations say that if two or more opinions are in conflict, the qualifications of the physicians interpreting the x-rays can be taken into consideration. According to the lawsuit, the opinions of Wheeler, who obtained his undergraduate and medical degree from Harvard University and Medical School, often outweighed other doctors’ interpretations.
     “By intentionally deviating from the ILO system, and substituting non-conforming standards for x-ray findings, Johns Hopkins and Dr. Wheeler were successful on denying lawfully earned federal benefits to injured coal miners,” the complaint states.
     Michael Steven Day Sr. and Junior McCoy Barr had both worked for 33 years as coal miners in West Virginia.
     They were both initially awarded benefits under the law, according to their estates, but their benefit determinations were overturned after readings by Wheeler and a fellow black-lung unit physician.
     Following Day’s death in 2014, an autopsy concluded he suffered from CWP and he was posthumously awarded benefits. Barr’s autopsy after his 2011 death also concluded that he suffered from simple CWP, but his estate never recovered benefits.
     Day and Barr’s estates seek at least $75,000, including punitive damages, for claims of fraud, interference with economic interests, RICO violations and misrepresentation.
     Jonathan Nace of the Washington firm Nidel Law, who represents the plaintiffs, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
     A spokesman for Johns Hopkins did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email request for comment.

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