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Federal grant to help fight asbestos-related diseases

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| May 26, 2009 12:00 AM

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is giving Lincoln County $6 million to fund health care for people with asbestos-related diseases and, according to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), there may be more help on the way.

“Six million dollars is a good, healthy start,” Baucus said Thursday. “I’m quite hopeful that it may lead to a declaration (of a public health emergency).”

Public health emergency status, which would be declared by the Environmental Protection Agency, would legally require the federal government to fund asbestos cleanup and health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related diseases.

The Lincoln County Health Department will receive the $6 million grant as early as August.

“In my many years working on this,” Baucus said, “this is the first time I’ve felt a major breakthrough in Libby.”

The county health department will work with community health-care entities to decide how to distribute the funds, said Brad Black, Lincoln County health officer and director of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.

The grant’s effectiveness will be maximized, Black said, because the local government will decide where each dollar goes.

“This money doesn’t have to go through any agencies,” Black said. “It goes directly to the county health department. Local administration of this grant money is tremendously powerful.”

A consortium of Libby-based health-care entities, such as the CARD clinic, Lincoln County Community Health Center, St. John’s Lutheran Hospital and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, will work together to write up a proposal for the funds, Black said.

Black emphasized that although the money is greatly needed and appreciated, it still represents a short-term solution. Many patients are reaching the stage in their disease that is most expensive, Black said, and the money might run out the first year of the grant’s two years.

“It’s a bridging money,” Black said. “It’s great for right now, but it can be eaten up.”

HHS delivered official paperwork Friday to the county health department to get the funding under way. In its letter, HHS called the situation in Libby “a serious public health problem” and said the grant money will help create a program to “screen and treat those adversely affected by asbestos-related diseases.”

Black agrees with Baucus that a public health emergency is a viable long-term health-care solution.

“He (Baucus) is still in there fighting for the long-term – a designation that will help us solve the problem,” Black said.

Baucus is optimistic that the funding will likely pave the way for a public health emergency.

“I have a reasonable expectation that we’ll get it and reasonably soon,” Baucus said.

Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over HHS, and is a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA.

“I’ve talked with the head of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, and the head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, and they both know how important it is to help the folks in Libby,” Baucus said.

Jackson promised Baucus in January that upon confirmation she would reconsider the EPA’s prior decision to not declare a public health emergency in Libby.

Baucus released a report last year detailing a 2002 attempt by the EPA to declare a public health emergency that was thwarted by the previous administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

The broader financial implications of the declaration appeared to be a major reason. Zonolite, used as attic insulation and in soil, was produced at the Libby vermiculite mine but was not only used in Libby. Zonolite was shipped nationwide and used in up to 52 million homes.

“I don’t know if the declaration would affect other parts of the country,” Baucus said Thursday. “That is theoretically possible but the magnitude and need of health care is many, many times greater in Libby. I’m most concerned about the people of Libby.”