Don’t Group Libby With Other ‘Winners’

By Kellyn Brown

Democrats in the U.S. Senate are accused of buying and bartering for votes in order to muster a filibuster-proof majority to pass health care legislation on Christmas Eve. The criticism is warranted in many cases, but not in Libby’s.

If you have been following the health care debate, even in passing, you have probably seen the list. It names the “winners” and “losers” in the Senate’s 2,000-page bill that includes special provisions for certain states, many of which are indefensible as anything but pork, even if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tries in vain to justify them.

“There are 100 senators here, and I don’t know that there’s a senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that isn’t important to them,” Reid said. “If they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well to them.”

Actually, it doesn’t speak well to Senate Democrats that it required perks to their home states to pass what could be the most significant piece of legislation (for better or worse) in a generation. It left the party wide open for criticism such as this, from Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican:

“This process is corruption. It’s a shame the only way we can come to a consensus in this country is to buy votes.”

Or, like this, from Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who actually supported a previous version of the health care bill: “I just think that in all fairness to all parts of the country, I think it is important that the policy be equitable.”

To be sure, the Senate’s health care bill is unfair to many parts of the country that will end up picking up the price tag for the rest of us.

Montana and other rural states were crowned winners because doctors here will receive increased Medicare payments. Other states where Democratic senators secured more federal funding for Medicaid – and have something to brag about to their respective constituents – include Louisiana, Vermont and Massachusetts.

Perhaps the biggest winner in the health care legislation was Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson and his home state of Nebraska. The federal government will indefinitely pick up the costs of covering low-income people added to Medicaid rolls under the legislation. That’s right, we’ll be subsidizing Nebraska forever.

But also cited in the list of winners in the health care bill are the people of Libby, who will benefit from language inserted by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., which would expand Medicare coverage to “individuals exposed to environmental health hazards.”

Baucus’ provision applies specifically to people living in areas that have been declared a “public health emergency.” There has only been one. Libby was given the declaration by the Environmental Protection Agency in June of this year. And it was long overdue.

Libby’s vermiculite mine, under W.R. Grace & Co.’s watch, poisoned nearby residents for decades, resulting in more than 200 deaths and sickening hundreds more. It is the epicenter of one of the worst public disasters in the country’s history. And for years the federal government ignored it.

In 2008, documents revealed that the Bush administration refused to declare Libby a public health emergency, despite the initial advice from the EPA, out of concerns that such declaration would ignite a costly national effort to clean up asbestos.

At the time, Baucus called the decision a “conspiracy.” Whether that’s the case, the fact remains that Libby suffered instead of receiving help with clean-up work and increased health screenings. Expanding Medicare coverage for people exposed to asbestos is the federal government taking a step long overdue.

It’s pitiful that U.S. senators bartered for votes to decide winners in the health care legislation. But, to be clear, it’s wrong to include Libby on that list.