Series exposing conspiracy to deny black lung benefits wins award

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WASHINGTON (PAI)--A coal industry conspiracy to deny black lung benefits to tens of thousands of coal miners has won the Heywood Broun Award - given annually to honor outstanding investigative and public service reporting - from The Newspaper Guild.

The award will be given in October jointly to the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News for their series last year, "Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung Disease, Buried by Law and Medicine." Journalists from the two organizations will split a $5,000 check.

Center reporter Chris Hamby spent a year researching the black lung series, and ABC reporters Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk amplified it. The network spotlight led Johns Hopkins University to rapidly suspend its compromised black lung program and spurred members of Congress to propose stronger legislative remedies.

A Senate Labor subcommittee held a hearing in late July on the denial of black lung benefits, as a direct result of the Center's and ABC's findings. After hearing about the denials, panel chairman Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who represents one of the top coal-mining states, promised witnesses - including a retired United Mine Worker suffering from black lung - that he would draft legislation to try to close loopholes in the black lung law.

Earlier, the series prompted Casey and five other lawmakers to demand the Obama administration increase funding for Labor Department administrative law judges, who decide if black lung claims are valid or not, by $10 million in the year beginning Oct. 1. Obama proposed a $2.7 million hike. A black lung claimant waits an average of 520 days before an ALJ hears their case, the lawmakers' letter said.

"Black lung? Wasn't that something we first heard about decades ago and that public officials and the medical community have dealt with?" the 4-member Broun judging panel wrote about choosing the series as the winner among nearly 70 standout entries from 2013.

"That was our belief - that is, until reading and viewing this report," the judges said. "Despite legislative reforms beginning in the late '60s and oversight by the Labor Department, it seems the coal industry giants have been gaming the system - not only using their hired legal specialists to prolong appeals in black lung benefit cases so that the process 'outlives' the victims, they actually co-opted one of our more prestigious hospitals to aid their scheme."

ABC and the Center reported the head of radiology for black lung at Johns Hopkins read more than 1,500 X-rays over 13 years, finding that not one single miner had a serious enough case to qualify for benefits.

Testimony at the hearing showed those miners - including the UMW member - then had to get second opinions and biopsies. The testifying miner had to toil several more years after Hopkins initially rejected his claim. The hospital's analysis of his case, and of others, was wrong. Meanwhile, the coal companies paid Hopkins about 10 times the usual fees for the serial misdiagnoses, the Center discovered. "That's the heart of journalism - follow a small lead and pursue it until you expose a huge injustice," one Broun Award judge said.

The black lung series has won other major awards, including this year's Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Broun award honors the best of journalism in the tradition of the famed newspaper columnist Heywood Broun, who helped found the Guild in 1933. "We believe our winner truly reflects the Guild founder's commitment to championing the underdog against the powerful, the uncaring, the corrupt," the judges said.

Two other projects were runners-up and will receive Substantial Distinction awards, accompanied by $1,000 checks to be shared by the reporters involved. The Sacramento Bee won for a series about Nevada busing hundreds of mentally ill patients out of state. The Washington Post won for "Homes for the Taking," exposing how lien buyers preyed on homeowners.

Bee reporters Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese began with the tale of a confused man who stepped off a Greyhound bus and wandered into a police station for help. He had lost his ID and had no money, no warm clothing and no prescriptions for medication he needed. They learned Nevada's primary mental health hospital put him on a 1-way bus trip - out of the state.

The Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas had a pattern of systematic "patient dumping," of more than 1,500 seriously mentally ill patients by busing them to cities in nearly every other state. The Bee's series ended the dumping and forced Nevada to increase funding for mental health services.

The Post's team of Michael Sallah, Debbie Cenziper and Steven Rich "exposed a shocking example of predation in the District of Columbia aimed largely at poor, sick and elderly residents," the judges said. Their series showed D.C.'s revenue office let aggressive out-of-town lien buyers virtually steal people's homes through lien auctions. One aging veteran suffering from dementia lost his home for $134 overdue tax bill that burgeoned into a $5,000 debt to the tax lien firms, for example.

The Post series led the D.C. City Council to pass legislation prohibiting the sale of liens on tax debts less than $2,000, capping legal fees and interest charged by lien buyers, allowing homeowners who lose homes through foreclosure to keep a portion of their equity, and banning loan buying by investors convicted of fraud and deceitful practices in other places.

Judges of the 2013 entries were James Steele, a former Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter and a two-time winner of both the Broun Award and the Pulitzer Prize; retired New York Times copy editor Betsy Wade, a pioneer in fighting for women's equality in newsrooms; retired New York Times senior writer Lena Williams; and panel chair Jeff Miller, retired communications director for the Communications Workers.

The judges said the contest reaffirmed their faith that exceptional and important journalism still occurs, regardless of how much the news industry changes.

Photo: An old picture presented on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 22, during a Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety hearing on "Coal Miners' Struggle for Justice: How Unethical Legal and Medical Practices Stack the Deck Against Black Lung Claimants" shows, coal miner Robert Bailey, standing second from right, with fellow miners after a day's work in a coal mine in Maitland W.Va. Bailey, 61, a retired coal miner from Princeton, W.Va., who suffers from black lung disease has urged Congress to help clear a backlog of claims of fellow miners who have the disease. AP 

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