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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Doctor says asbestos bill bad for Libby patients

Associated Press

KALISPELL – A Spokane physician and a law firm here contend the latest federal asbestos victim compensation bill would exclude more than 90 percent of Libby asbestos patients.

Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonary specialist whose caseload includes about 500 Libby patients, wrote in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sen. Arlen Specter’s bill would make payments based on the progression of lung disease caused by exposure to chrysotile asbestos. Libby residents have been exposed to the more damaging tremolite asbestos through working at or living near the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.

Specter, committee chairman, wants to set up a $140 billion trust fund to compensate people sickened by asbestos exposure, with payments based on the diagnosed level of the disease. The fund also would protect companies against lawsuits filed over asbestos-related illnesses.

Whitehouse says many of the Libby patients would die before they reach the level of lung damage required for payment under the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act.

“This criteria alone excludes over 90 percent of the Libby patients,” Whitehouse said.

The McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & McGarvey Law Firm in Kalispell took on the first lawsuits against Grace over asbestos exposure in Libby in the mid-1990s and still has well over 500 lawsuits pending against the company, which has filed for bankruptcy.

“It looks as if it (the legislation) is posturing for movement this year,” said attorney Roger Sullivan. “The fundamental problem continues to be there’s no recognition in the bill for the fact we’re dealing with tremolite asbestos, and the eligibility criteria is still based on chrysotile asbestos.”

Whitehouse also noted that asthma patients and former smokers are unfairly classified in the latest draft bill, as well.

“The bill is very hard on ex-smokers who have some smoking disease along with asbestos disease,” Whitehouse said. “They are classified at Level 2 (mixed disease) even if they are dying of asbestos disease.”

The legislation does state that Libby claimants can opt to have their claims designated as exceptional medical claims and have them referred to a physician’s panel. But Sullivan said it doesn’t offer any guarantee of compensation.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said he’ll vote against the legislation unless it ensures Libby residents get the compensation they deserve and a provision to ensure their claims receive prompt consideration by expert medical panels and the trust administrator.

The most recent hearing on the bill was held Jan. 11.

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