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Advocates remain concerned about asbestos bill

| April 15, 2005 12:00 AM

An exception for Libby residents has been written into an asbestos litigation reform bill under consideration by the U.S. Senate, but some local advocates remain concerned that it won't be enough to ensure victims receive adequate compensation.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is aimed at reforming how asbestos liability lawsuits are handled across the country. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus worked with Specter to carve out special provisions in the bill for Libby residents that take into account the unique kind of health impacts associated with exposure to the tremolite asbestos found in Libby.

Baucus said Specter agreed on Tuesday to insert a provision guaranteeing that Libby residents who are sick from asbestos fibers will get at least $400,000 in compensation.

"This is a huge victory for Libby residents who need and deserve to be compensated," said Baucus, who had been withholding his support for the legislation until he received assurances people in Libby get proper financial compensation.

Baucus said passing balanced asbestos legislation, with a good "Libby fix" included, is essential because W.R. Grace may not be able to compensate Libby residents following the company's filing for bankruptcy.

In addition to establishing a $400,000 floor of compensation for Libby residents, Baucus said he was able to get Specter to include several provisions that take into account Libby's special circumstances, including: exempting Libby residents from strict medical and asbestos exposure criteria to qualify for compensation; allowing family members and other Libby residents to qualify for compensation in addition to former W.R. Grace workers; allowing people to be compensated from the Asbestos Trust Fund as well as other sources such as Medicaid and Medicare, and language allowing Baucus to advance his proposal establishing a new Libby Health Care Fund.

"It sounds good, but the devil is in the details, and we are looking at it very closely," said asbestos victims' advocate Gayla Benefield.

Dr. Brad Black, medical director at the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease, expressed concerns about the makeup of a physicians panel that will make determinations as to whether or not a person has a qualifying medical condition. While the bill specifies that the panel is to "take into account the unique and serious nature of asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana, including the nature of the pleural disease related to asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana," the physicians need to be familiar with the differences between Libby amphibole asbestos and the far more common chrysotile asbestos, Black said.

"It makes all the difference in the world," he said.

The criteria used for evaluating victims of chrysotile exposure don't apply to Libby asbestos victims, Black said. If methods based on chrysotile are used, many people with serious health effects could be rejected, he said.

Black said neither he nor Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist who has treated many Libby asbestos victims and recently joined the CARD staff, were contacted by Baucus during the development of the "Libby fix" to the asbestos bill.

"I'm not sure how he can do that without talking to people who know what's going on," he said.