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Social Security recognizes Libby disease

| May 26, 2006 12:00 AM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

Citing the help of Dr. Brad Black of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Social Security officials and U.S. Senator Max Baucus announced a clarification Tuesday that makes Libby asbestos victims eligible for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security insurance payments.

It's unknown how many people were initially denied Social Security benefits because of wording in the agency's "listing" for asbestos-related disease types is most often found in victims exposed to the more common chrysotile form of asbestos, said Martin Gerry, deputy commissioner for disability and income support programs.

"What we've issued is a ruling that is binding on the adjudication process and walks people through the process on how to qualify, and how this asbestos disease is different from others," Gerry said during a teleconference with Baucus, Black and regional media Wednesday afternoon. "It may result in a significant increase in the number of cases we will see."

It was important for Social Security personnel to talk to physicians treating the patients so they could describe how it is being manifested, Gerry continued.

Social Security depends on descriptions and conditions for diseases in its "Listings" to determine eligibility for benefits, Gerry said.

"We haven't seen this type of disease until Libby," he said.

And, he said, through conversations with Black, Social Security has learned there are people with the disease who didn't come by it occupationally and many people who have yet to apply for benefits.

"We will probably be involved with this for some time as more people come in," Gerry said. "We don't know how many."

Because of the latency, Black said there will be people being diagnosed for the next 25 to 30 years with the asbestos-related disease from exposure to the Libby tremolite asbestos that contaminated vermiculite mined and milled in the area by W.R. Grace from the early 1960s through 1990.

"The good thing is we got on this right away," said Baucus, recalling a March conversation with Black at the CARD clinic in Libby. "I remember saying after that conversation at CARD that this was going to happen, it had to happen. It's part of our ongoing effort to help Libby folks get through tragedy left behind by W.R. Grace."

The senator said there was an ongoing problem informing Congress and the federal agencies that their is something different happening with asbestos-related disease in Libby.

"We're working on professional efforts to document the problem in Libby to help with that," Baucus said.

On April 4, Baucus sent a letter to commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart of the Social Security Administration informing her of the problem and asking her to look into it as quickly as possible.

Black expressed surprise on how fast the agency moved to correct the problem.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "Folks can look forward to a better future."

The disabilities insurance benefit could provide as much as $2,200 a month while the supplemental security income payments can be as much as $700 a month, Gerry said.

Tanis Hernandez, a medical social worker at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby said people who were previously denied benefits should reapply.

"Because of the uniqueness of our disease, a lot of people were falling through the cracks," Hernandez said. "Just because you got refused before doesn't mean not to try it now."

Gerry said people have been eligible for some time but Social Security needed the evidence to add disease descriptions to its "Listings."

"We do think it will effect a significant percentage of people," he said.

In a news release issued Tuesday afternoon, Baucus noted that currently 1400 current and former Libby residents suffer from asbestos-related disease due to the Grace mining operations. He said 300 to 500 new cases are diagnosed each year and that more than 200 Libby residents have already died from ARD.