Input sought on asbestos bill
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns is seeking input from Libby residents on draft legislation to create a trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos exposure.
A similar bill was under consideration last year but never made it to a full vote of the Senate. The new bill is still in draft form and was the subject of a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
The bill would create an Office of Asbestos Disease Compensation within the U.S. Department of Labor. The new office would be in charge of a trust fund composed of contributions from current defendants and their insurers as well as money from existing bankruptcy trusts.
Compensation from the fund would vary among ten tiers based on the severity of disease. Those at the lowest level would receive medical monitoring while compensation at the top tier, which would include patients diagnosed with mesothelioma, would be $1.075 million.
Stays would be issued for pending legal claims, and those claims would then be filed with the trust fund.
Claims could be submitted without an attorney. Attorney¹s fees would be capped at 10 percent but could go as high as 20 percent of the total award in the event of an appeal.
Claims would be reviewed by a panel of three physicians experienced in asbestos-related diseases. Doctors would be disqualified if they had received more than 15 percent of their income acting on behalf of any party in asbestos litigation for each of the past five years. Processing would be expedited for claimants suffering from serious effects of asbestos exposure, and consideration would be given for those claiming extreme financial hardship.
Burns said he remains concerned with several key areas in the bill, including the following:
• No agreement has been reached on the size of the trust fund or its duration.
• The medical diagnosis criteria could exclude some Libby residents in the lower tiers.
• The treatment of pending legal claims is still being worked out, creating an uncertain future for claimants.
Burns said he is pleased, however, to see that Libby residents are exempted from strict exposure requirements that other claimants must demonstrate. The exemption includes anyone who worked at the former vermiculite mine or processing facilities in Libby along with anyone who lived within 20 miles of Libby for at least 12 consecutive months prior to Dec. 31, 2003.
Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a chest physician who has treated more than 500 people for diseases related to exposure to Libby asbestos, has already submitted a five-page critique of the bill to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. According to Whitehouse, the bill¹s medical criteria would exclude more than 90 percent of Libby patients and categorize them as unimpaired.
Whitehouse said the criteria are based on the type of disease associated with chrysotile asbestos — formerly widely used in fireproofing products — rather than Libby asbestos, which is generally considered much more toxic and results in disease that progresses differently. In addition, the criteria are based on an ³antique² X-ray system for diagnosis instead of modern CT scans, which would be a better approach to detecting disease associated with Libby asbestos, Whitehouse said.
³I see Libby patients every working day,² Whitehouse said in his letter to Specter. ³Their impairment is easily demonstrated objectively. Importantly they are short of breath. Nevertheless, the bill¹s medical criteria in many cases exclude them from any claim for medical expenses. Many will die of asbestos pleural disease and never meet the criteria of this bill.²
Anyone seeking more information on the bill or wishing to comment may contact Burns¹ office at (800) 344-1513 or email staff member Denise Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.