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Federal grant to help asbestos victims

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| November 4, 2009 11:00 PM

A $6 million grant announced in May from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will begin to take effect next week to provide asbestos screening and health care for former and current Libby-area residents.

People with asbestos-related illness from Libby exposure can begin to tap into the funding next week for health-care services, with free screenings for qualified patients commencing the following week on Nov. 16.

“Help has arrived on the ground for folks in Libby who are victims of asbestos-related disease,” Sen. Max Baucus said last week in a prepared statement. “These services are a result of a long fight to get Libby residents the resources they need to move forward towards a bright future.”

Baucus was fundamental in influencing the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the Libby Superfund site a public health emergency in June. The designation, the first and only of its kind in EPA history, requires the federal government to provide asbestos-related health care for those exposed in Libby.

The initial $6 million grant will help the county build infrastructure to fulfill health-care requirements of the site’s new status.

The grant is intended to be used over a two-year period – $2 million specifically for asbestos screening and $4 million for asbestos-related health care – though it may run out before then.

“It’s such a broad coverage of asbestos-related health benefits, it’s anticipated that it will go faster than that,” said Tanis Hernandez, outreach coordinator at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease. “The federal government (Department of Health and Human Services) and Sen. Baucus are aware of that and already looking to secure additional funds.”

Screenings will be performed at the CARD Clinic in Libby, while asbestos-related health care can be obtained through any provider.

“If diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, Libby residents deserve to get the very best treatment possible and I am pleased that all of these health services will finally be readily available to them,” Baucus said.

To be eligible for a free screening, patients must have lived, worked or recreated in the Libby area for at least six months and the first potential asbestos exposure had to have occurred at least 10 years ago.

Those diagnosed with asbestos-related complications are eligible for Federal Libby Asbestos Specialty Healthcare. FLASH benefits cover all asbestos-related conditions not already covered by other health-care programs and personal insurance.

Benefits of other programs such as the Libby Asbestos Medical Plan cannot compare to FLASH, Hernandez said. The primary objective of LAMP, which is funded through the W.R. Grace settlement, is to provide screening and supplement benefits for services not provided under the Grace Libby Medical Program.

There are many holes in the coverage, Hernandez said. Its lifetime maximum benefit is $25,000 and it many times doesn’t cover basic asbestos-related expenses such as oxygen tanks.

“You’re never quite confident that things will be paid for,” Hernandez said. “But this funding, because it was defined by the local community and based on experience, should … provide comprehensive coverage.”

Hernandez said that of particular note is that those with cancer stemming from exposure will be treated under the FLASH program even if they haven’t developed lung abnormalities, as long as they spent at least six months in Libby and had their first potential exposure at least 10 years ago.

Funding will help patients who could never before afford treatment, as well as relieve local health-care facilities that write off millions of dollars of unpaid bills each year.

“It will definitely guarantee coverage for asbestos-related health issues that historically have not always been covered,” Hernandez said. “It increases their financial stability by guaranteeing payment of services provided.”

The medical community began laying the groundwork for a comprehensive asbestos-related health care plan in 2006, Hernandez said, and now finally has the funding to implement it.

The new medical benefits are explained further on the CARD Clinic website at www.libbyasbestos.org/benefits .