Major news: Dr. Wheeler is now presumed not to be believable by the Department of Labor.
The Director of the Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation has instructed its employees not to credit the negative x-ray readings by Dr. Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions unless the Responsible Operator can bolster Dr. Wheeler’s credibility or undermine the reporting by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News.
In addition, according to ABC News, the Department will notify coal miners whose black lung benefits claims were denied based on Dr. Wheeler’s readings that they should consider refiling and seeking benefits again now that Dr. Wheeler is presumed not to be credible.
The Department’s new policy was announced via BLBA Bulletin No. 14-09 on June 2, 2014.
This policy change is a direct result of Pulitzer Prize winning reporting in the Breathless and Burdened series by Chris Hamby and others at the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News. In response, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program and began an investigation which is still pending.
The most relevant portions of the memo read as follows:
[S]ince 2000 in more than 1,500 black lung claims, Dr. Wheeler had never once, in more than 3,400 x-ray readings, interpreted an x-ray as positive for complicated pneumoconiosis.
. . . .
Such a consistent record of never diagnosing complicated pneumoconiosis and almost never diagnosing simple pneumoconiosis 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.
. . . .
District directors are therefore instructed to (1) take notice of this reporting and (2) not credit Dr. Wheeler’s negative readings for pneumoconiosis in the absence of persuasive evidence either challenging the CPI and ABC conclusions or otherwise rehabilitating Dr. Wheeler’s readings.
. . . .
If the responsible operator submits a Wheeler x-ray reading, the district director should inform the parties of this news coverage and its consequences and provide them with copies of the reports and articles (or the internet links to applicable websites), and give them a reasonable opportunity to respond. (Attached to this Bulletin is a sample letter providing notice to the parties.) The district director must then consider any responsive evidence in evaluating the conflicting x-ray readings. As instructed above, the district director should accord no weight to Dr. Wheeler’s reading unless the responsible operator submits persuasive evidence (or argument) that bolsters Dr. Wheeler’s credibility or undermines the CPI and ABC News reports (or the Hopkins’ suspension). Should the district director be uncertain as to the evaluation of the responsive evidence, he should contact the National Office. If the responsible operator submits no evidence in response to the district director’s letter, the resulting weighing of the x-ray evidence should give no weight to Dr. Wheeler’s reading.
The question now is whether the coal companies’ attorneys will try to rehabilitate Dr. Wheeler or this will be the end of the use of Dr. Wheeler’s reports in the black lung benefit system.