Silicosis diagnosing doctors take the 5th in congressional hearing

Ann Knef Mar. 8, 2006, 10:44am

Joe Barton, R-Tx.

Ed Whitfield, R-Ky

After a medical expert and law professor tore apart the validity of national asbestos and silicosis litigation before a congressional committee Wednesday, doctors responsible for diagnosing nearly 10,000 disputed claims chose to remain silent.

Dr. Ray A. Harron, a Bridgeport, W.Va. radiologist, his son, Dr. Andrew W. Harron of Kenosha, Wisc. and Dr. James Ballard of Birmingham, Ala. refused to answer whether they would certify the accuracy of their diagnoses on grounds of self-incrimination.

Dr. Laura Welch, medical director at the Center to Protect Workers Rights, of Silver Spring, Md., said that she has never seen a patient with both illnesses.

"It's unlikely for a person to have asbestosis and silicosis," she said.

Edward F. Sherman, a law professor at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, said the "scant" medical evidence presented in the disputed claims should never have held up in court.

But a "B-reader" radiologist, Dr. George Martindale of Mobile, Ala., and the owner of a lung disease screening company he contracted with, Heath Mason, of N&M, Inc., from Moss Point, Miss. explained to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations how they made money from patient "inventory."

Each of the witnesses called to testify played an integral role in the production of thousands of silicosis diagnoses that were manufactured for money, according to U.S. District Judge Janis Jack.

Last year, Jack publicly admonished plaintiff's lawyers for their role in the litigation.

Mason, who testified that 99 percent of his revenue is earned through law firms, vaguely estimated his annual earnings from screening patients for asbestosis or silicosis at between $100,000 and $1 million.

He also answered vaguely when asked to describe how his screening company conducted business with lawyers.

"That's way too broad," Mason said,.

Mason said he provided screenings for many law firms, and singled out a national asbestos firm based in Waco, Texas -- Cherry Campbell-- as a firm that only paid his company for positive diagnoses.

Mason said he counted on physicians such as Dr. Ray Harron to provide them. Harron has reportedly earned nearly $10 million from making diagnoses that became the basis for litigation.

During the hearing, Mason also said his company would accept calls from people over the phone and if they met certain criteria, he would set up a screening.

Martindale contracted with Mason to read X-rays.

He insisted that he only supported diagnoses made by Harron by reviewing X-rays, but that he never had contact with patients.

"I had been told that a diagnosis existed," Martindale said.

"It was more prevalent for settling cases to have a second opinion."

Since launching the investigation on Aug. 2, 2005, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Tx., and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., have written to 16 doctors and medical screening companies, 13 law firms, and health officials in six states seeking details about the financial and business arrangements between doctors, medical screening companies and lawyers to diagnose the disease.

In November, the Subcommittee subpoenaed four individuals.

The bankrupt Johns-Manville Corp., a regular Madison County asbestos defendant, says Dr. Ray Harron is responsible for 10 percent of the claims it has paid.

It isn't clear whether Harron is responsible for any of the diagnoses in Madison County's massive asbestos docket. But an Alabama mobile X-ray screening service, which provided diagnoses for lawsuits filed in Madison County last year, has been rebuked for producing a high rate of false-positive diagnoses.

In September 2005, Texas plaintiff's firm Brent Coon & Associates filed 172 silicosis and asbestos lawsuits in Madison County. St. Louis attorney Robert Brooks Ramsey acted as local counsel.

The Record interviewed eight of the plaintiffs who stated they participated in a screening in a mobile X-ray van at a union hall near Chicago in 2003.

They identified Respiratory Testing Services (RTS) of Mobile, Ala. as the screener, which had been singled out in a report by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies in September as producing dubious diagnoses.

Of the total Brent Coon & Associates cases, 139 were asbestos suits, which were recently moved to the deferred docket.

The deferred docket was created in January of 2004 to give people currently sick ahead of those who claim exposure but are not physically impaired.

Once a case is placed on the deferred docket, defendants do not have to appear until the case is removed and no answers are due.

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