House Takes Up Silicosis Fraud Claims

A House committee is looking into one of the largest cases of legal and medical fraud in United States history. Thousands of compensation claims were filed over the last few years for workers who allegedly had silicosis — a deadly lung disease that affects miners, rock-quarry workers and others who breathe in tiny particles of sand. But according to one judge, the claims were "manufactured for money."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A House Committee opens hearings today in what could be one of the largest cases of legal and medical fraud in American history. A Federal judge in Texas uncovered the matter and then ruled it was fraud, after she was inundated with thousands of compensations claims for workers who allegedly had silicosis. That's a deadly lung disease that affects miners, rock quarry workers, and others who breathe in tiny particles of sand.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports today's hearing could produce some fireworks on Capital Hill.

ANDREA SEABROOK, reporting:

People claiming to have silicosis started filing lawsuits in huge numbers, after plaintiff lawyers advertised for anyone who'd ever worked around sand to come in for a medical screening. Those screenings found thousands of cases of silicosis, more than half of which were in patients who already had been diagnosed with asbestosis, the lung disease caused by working around and inhaling asbestos. This, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that cases of people suffering both diseases at once are extremely rare.

Today a House Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations will look into these mass medical screenings, and question doctors who performed them. That is, if the doctors show up.

Representative JOE BARTON, (Republican, Texas; Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee) Right now they're hemming and hawing, and running for cover, and basically acting guilty as hell.

SEABROOK: That's Texas Republican Joe Barton, the Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee under which the Subcommittee hearing will take place. Barton seems both angry and a bit bemused at the actions of three of the doctors ordered to appear today. They have so far ignored subpoenas Barton's committee issued last November, for documents pertaining to their work diagnosing silicosis patients.

BARTON: I will say this, in the 200-year history of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its predecessor committees, I'm not aware of one case where a subpoena has not been honored. And if it takes a contempt citation on the floor of the House of Representatives to get these folks to cooperate, we'll do it.

SEABROOK: Other witnesses to testify today are expected to outline the shady legal and medical practices used to make thousands of silicosis diagnoses, and that many aren't probably fraudulent. But...

Dr. LAURA WELCH: Even if that's true, we can't forget that there's this group of people who really are sick.

SEABROOK: Dr. Laura Welch, of the Center to Protect Workers Rights, will caution against shutting down legal avenues for people who may have legitimate medical claims for compensation.

Dr. WELCH: I think that part of the agenda for attacking these screening programs, is to attack the concept of filing a claim for an asbestos or silica related lung disease. That it will lead to the impression that anybody who files a claim is fraudulent.

SEABROOK: Republicans and Democrats on the Committee are in general agreement that something fishy is going on here. It looks as if doctors, plaintiffs' lawyers, and some patients were trying to cash in on company payouts for silicosis victims. But that doesn't mean the two parties will agree on how to fix it.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

MONTAGNE: You can learn how one judge's ruling is having an impact on the nation's hundreds of thousands of asbestos and silicosis claims at npr.org.

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