LIBBY — Sen. Max Baucus has visited this remote corner of the state more than 20 times since 1999, when news first surfaced that asbestos had sickened and killed scores of residents. On every trip, he vows that his work isn’t done, that he won’t forget the beleaguered town.
Last week, on what will almost certainly be his final visit as a United States senator, Baucus made good on another vow, and the tiny community responded by honoring the senator’s 14 years of work in Libby.
Greeted by an emotional crowd of board members and providers at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), Baucus announced that a pilot program to provide medical and other services to victims of asbestos exposure was expanding to include 18 additional counties in Montana, Idaho and Washington.
The program offers home assistance, mileage reimbursements for medical travel and other benefits to people with asbestos-related disease as a result of the now-defunct W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine that operated here for years.
The mine belched out tons of tremolite asbestos dust into the air every day it operated. As a result, the population here has been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases at more than 40 times the national average.
Previously, the pilot program, which was established under the Affordable Care Act that Baucus engineered, was available only to people in Lincoln and Flathead counties, excluding a quarter of new patients. The program has now been expanded to include five more counties in western Montana — Glacier, Lake, Sanders, Mineral, and Missoula — seven in Idaho and six in Washington. An estimated 80 percent of victims of Libby asbestos exposure live in that region, the senator said.
The program will help people obtain the health care they need even if they’ve moved away from Libby after being exposed to asbestos. Health officials say the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases means victims develop health complications over the course of decades, and many are dispersed throughout the region.
The program had previously been revamped due to federal appropriations secured by Baucus and a provision he inserted into the health care reform bill.
Because of the provision, victims of asbestos-related disease in Libby are now eligible for a range of federal health care benefits, including services not normally covered by Medicare. The provision provides funding for screenings as well as Medicare coverage for those suffering from asbestos-related disease.
CARD, a community-based nonprofit organization, was established in 2000 to provide asbestos screening and health care to patients sickened through asbestos exposure. More than 400 Libby residents have died of asbestos-related disease in the past several decades and thousands more are sickened from breathing asbestos fibers.
During Baucus’ visit, CARD Board President Michael Giesey highlighted a long list of accomplishments that Baucus and his staff helped CARD achieve.
“Max has been a true champion for the CARD clinic. If you think about all the things Max has done in this town in his career this is one issue that Max has pursued with a vengeance,” Giesey said.
In 2009, at Baucus’ behest, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson declared the first public health emergency in U.S. history at the Libby site, which is considered the nation’s deadliest Superfund cleanup projects. Victims of public health emergencies are entitled to ongoing health care by law.
“We would probably be on a whole different path without that,” Giesey said. “We probably wouldn’t be here.”
Since the extent of asbestos-related disease came to light in late 1999, the CARD clinic has acquired a caseload of 5,500 patients and continues to grow, with 2,780 patients diagnosed with an asbestos related disease.
Baucus has secured more than $1 million for expanding and renovating the CARD clinic.
Tanis Hernandez, administrative director at CARD, said that prior to the recent expansion, 25 percent of incoming patients were ineligible for the Medicare Pilot Program because they lived outside Lincoln or Flathead County.
Dr. Brad Black, CEO and medical director of the CARD Clinic, wrote a letter commending Baucus, which Hernandez read to the senator.
“We’ve faced some tough times in Libby over the last few decades. But, were it not for Senator Baucus’ tireless advocacy for the health and well-being of the people of Libby, we would not be where we are today. We truly owe Max a debt of gratitude,” he wrote. “His work has granted hope to Libby. For that, we are thankful.”
Baucus was also honored for his work on behalf of Libby and the CARD Clinic as staff and board members dedicated a wing of the clinic to Baucus and unveiled a wall of appreciation.
“Your efforts will have a lasting effect on humanity,” Giesey said.
Beaming at the wall and the groundbreaking shovel he wielded 14 years ago, Baucus thanked the CARD providers for their efforts.
“This is so bittersweet,” he said of his departure from the senate. “You’ve done so much for me.”