Breathless and Burdened

Published — June 4, 2014 Updated — June 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm ET

Labor Department issues warning about Hopkins doctor’s findings on black lung claims

The U.S. Department of Labor warned its officials to view with skepticism any X-ray readings by Dr. Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins


Dr. Paul Wheeler, the longtime leader of a unit at Johns Hopkins that for decades has read X-rays and CT scans for coal companies defending black lung benefits claims. (ABC News)

The reverberations from a Center for Public Integrity/ABC News investigation continued this week as the U.S. Department of Labor warned its officials to view with skepticism any X-ray readings by a Johns Hopkins University doctor who virtually never diagnoses black lung, a deadly disease that afflicts coal miners.

The news organizations reported last fall that Dr. Paul Wheeler, an associate professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions often hired by coal companies to weigh miners’ claims for federal benefits, had never found the most severe form of the disease among more than 1,500 claims. Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung X-ray reading program promptly after the story was published.

On Monday, in a development first reported by ABC News, the Labor Department issued a bulletin instructing district directors in the department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs to “take notice” of the journalists’ work and assume Wheeler’s findings in black lung cases are suspect.

“The CPI and ABC News reports, and Johns Hopkins’ investigation and suspension of its black lung reading program, are relevant, material and probative evidence regarding Dr. Wheeler’s qualifications,” the bulletin says. “Such a consistent record of never diagnosing complicated [black lung] and almost never diagnosing simple [black lung] undermines the credibility of his conclusions and renders them less credible than a positive reading. In addition, the reports demonstrate that Dr. Wheeler’s diagnoses have been wrong many times.”

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Johns Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe wrote, “We take these allegations very seriously and are still conducting the investigation into the [X-ray reading] program.” Hoppe wrote that “nobody at Hopkins — including Dr. Wheeler” is doing such readings while the inquiry is ongoing.

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