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Grace prepared to discuss moving forward

| March 30, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

W.R. Grace is "prepared to continue discussing moving forward" on a proposed medical trust fund for victims of asbestos-related disease, a corporation executive said Wednesday.

Bill Corcoran, who serves as Grace's vice president for public and regulatory affairs, spoke via conference call with local health care advocates and the county commissioners along with representatives of U.S. senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns. The call focused on a request that Grace consider making a financial contribution to help establish a fund that would provide for a locally administered medical plan for people with disease stemming from exposure to the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite the company formerly mined near Libby.

The trust fund would provide a long-term solution to the uncertain longevity of the health care plan currently provided by Grace as well as to concerns about criteria for enrollment on the plan and how benefits are paid, St. John's Lutheran Hospital chief executive officer Bill Patten told Corcoran. A locally administered plan would also address issues concerning continuity of care for patients, said Mike Giesey, president board of directors of the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease.

Other needs include funding for state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and for local care for people who, due to impairment from asbestos-related disease, need assistance with things not normally covered by insurance, said Karol Spas of the county's public health department and the Asbestos-Related Disease Network. Local administration would ensure maximum benefits, Spas said.

"In the words of one of my patients, now deceased, we would squeeze that nickel until the buffalo hollered," she said.

The Libby Area Medical Program, funded by a $2.75 million legal settlement between Grace and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and used as a supplement to the Grace medical plan, shows that local administration works, said LAMP representative LeRoy Thom. The problem with LAMP is that it is funded by a finite amount of money that will run out, Thom said.

Corcoran said the company would be willing to look at additional ways of helping people in the Libby area but defended the company's current medical program.

"We actually think we have a pretty good plan," he said.

Few complaints have been heard from the more than 700 people enrolled on the plan, Corcoran said, but the program continues to receive negative publicity.

"It's pretty hard to go the next step when we're constantly on the defensive from people who talk to folks in Libby or visit Libby and hear a constant stream of complaints about the plan," he said.

Establishing a new fund would be easier to discuss "in a more positive environment," Corcoran said.

Corcoran acknowledged that the issue will be complicated by Grace's bankruptcy proceedings and that any contribution would need to be approved by the bankruptcy court, but he promised to present the subject to Grace's management for discussion. He asked for some indication of the scale of the proposed trust fund.

Since 2000, Grace has been spending an average of $1.5 million per year on health care needs for the Libby area, including the medical plan and an annual $250,000 voluntary contribution to the local hospital, Corcoran said. An actuarial study indicates that health care costs will continue to be about $1-2 million for the next 10 years and then start to decline, he said.

The hospital's Jeanie Gentry expressed concerns about the data used for the study and indicated that real costs might be much higher.

"I think there is not a high deal of credibility in those numbers from any of us who participated in that study," she said.

The amount of money needed for a trust would depend on factors including the criteria needed for enrollment in the medical plan and what would be covered by the plan, Gentry said.

Corcoran asked the group to come up with a ballpark figure and get back to him. He suggested another discussion during the second week of April.

"I don't want to get too far into this and then have a number come out and say we just can't do anything with that," he said.