Health Care Reform Could Expand Coverage to Libby Residents

By Beacon Staff

As federal lawmakers hammer out a final health care reform bill, residents in Libby are watching closely.

That’s because Sen. Max Baucus, one of Montana’s two senators and a chief figure in the federal government’s attempt to pass health care reform, added a provision to the U.S. Senate version of the bill that would expand Medicare coverage to “individuals exposed to environmental health hazards.”

Baucus’ provision specifically applies to people living in areas that have been given public health emergency declarations. There has been only one such declaration in U.S. history: the Superfund site at Libby on June 17 of this year. The provision is tucked away in the massive Senate bill and never mentions Libby by name.

“The people of Libby were poisoned, have been dying for more than a decade and new residents are getting sick all the time,” Baucus said in a statement. “While the authority to declare a public health emergency has been in place since 1980, Libby is the first town in history to qualify for such a drastic declaration.”

Some 2,000 residents in Libby have been sickened by asbestos-related diseases and hundreds have died. The diseases stem from decades of exposure to tremolite asbestos released from a vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co. The vermiculite was used predominantly as insulation and fireproofing in millions of homes across the nation.

In May, following a months-long trial, a U.S. District Court jury in Missoula acquitted W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives on charges that they knowingly exposed Libby residents to deadly asbestos and then covered it up to continue making profits and avoid liability.

The District Court decision came as a blow to Libby residents, not the least of which was Gayla Benefield, a longtime activist for asbestos victims. So it is with hopeful anticipation that Benefield greets Baucus’ health care provision. Like others in Libby, Benefield didn’t know the provision was coming.

“It was very surprising,” Benefield said last week. “I’m excited about it because it’s another step forward for the people of Libby, especially for the future generations. Eventually they’re going to be sick.”

Benefield praised Baucus’ efforts and said she believes his friendship with the late Les Skramstad continues to motivate him in his work for Libby. Skramstad was a mineworker who helped bring the asbestos poisoning to the public’s attention. He passed away in 2007.

“Max has been there for us every step of the way,” Benefield said. “He’s never faltered.”

The Senate passed its bill on Christmas Eve. The House bill passed in November with a 220-215 vote. Now lawmakers are working to compromise on a single bill that includes elements of each.

Though the Environmental Protection Agency’s public health emergency declaration was made in June, Baucus said no mechanism exists to deliver the required screening and medical care. This provision, he said, establishes that mechanism.

If passed, the law would authorize grants to provide screening services for individuals in Libby. Also, residents with medical conditions would be eligible for coverage under Medicare, which is usually reserved for people over the age of 65 who meet certain requirements. The law also would create pilot programs for additional medical services.

“Public health tragedies like this could happen in any town in America,” Baucus said, “and we need this kind of mechanism in place to help people when they need it most.”