LIBBY – Though the visit by Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to this Lincoln County community was brief, it is possible she gained some insights Monday afternoon into what residents here want and need – and how those forces are opposed in some ways.
Libby residents at the public meeting, held by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., expressed a need for more help to deal with the asbestos-related diseases many community members are suffering from, yet they also wish to transcend the town’s reputation as site of the worst public health disaster in the U.S. to encourage jobs and growth.
They touted the increasing number of patients receiving care through the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby, yet one patient told Baucus and Sebelius the clinic’s services were being stretched such that he no longer received the attention he used to.
And while some Libby residents thanked Sebelius and Baucus for the health care reform law that passed last year and extended Medicare coverage to those sickened by asbestos, others questioned whether the changes to America’s health care system were Constitutional.
The visit by Sebelius, following a town hall-style meeting earlier that day in Missoula, was part of an effort by Baucus to show the health secretary some of the needs of rural states, and to defend and explain the controversial health care reform effort Democrats recently passed.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve made great progress here,” Baucus told the crowd of about 40 gathered at Libby City Hall.
The new law contains a provision allowing sick Libby residents to be extended Medicare coverage as the only community in the country currently declared a public health emergency by the Environmental Protection Agency. That declaration stems from the thousands of Libby residents sickened, and the hundreds killed by tremolite asbestos released from the vermiculite mines operated by W.R. Grace and Co. Over the last decade, cleanup of the asbestos has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
About 400 residents have signed up for the extended coverage, Sebelius said as she praised Baucus’ work on behalf of Libby.
“He does not let anybody lose sight of the fact that this is a town where there needs to be a measure of justice,” she said. “Our resources are really in touch with you folks on a regular basis.”
Gayla Benefield underscored the guarded optimism of some in Libby when she mentioned how, at a classic car rally that summer, someone was selling T-shirts, reading, “We put the ‘fun’ back in Superfund – come play in Libby.” Then she asked Baucus if the extended Medicare coverage could be repealed when a new presidential administration takes over, since she feared her grandchildren could suffer from asbestos sickness, making them the fourth generation in her family stricken with contamination.
A staff member for Baucus told her the health care law has the power of statute, and would need to be repealed for the coverage to go away.
Judy Matott asked Baucus if he would work to improve Libby’s image, and then asked him and Sebelius, “if either of you read the health care bill before it was passed and if not, that is the most despicable, irresponsible thing.”
Baucus replied that if Libby residents assembled an economic development plan, he would do what he could to help, and he took credit for “essentially” writing the health care bill that passed the Senate.
“I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every page of the health care bill. You know why? It’s statutory language,” Baucus said. “We hire experts.”
In response to Matott’s question and another from a woman asking if the health care law was Constitutional, Baucus gave a broad defense of the changes, comparing them to programs like Social Security and Medicare that were unpopular when passed but have proven beneficial to Americans over the long term.
“It’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect, but I’m telling you, ma’am, it’s a good start,” Baucus said. “Mark my words, several years from now you’re going to look back and say, ‘eh, maybe it isn’t so bad.’”
“Don’t think so,” Matott replied.
As the meeting drew to a close, Red Busby identified himself as an asbestos victim, and described recent difficulties he has had scheduling an appointment for even a yearly check-up at the CARD clinic due to all the new patients seeking treatment, saying he was worried he could develop mesothelioma or cancer in his lungs and not receive a timely diagnosis.
“If I could have caught it early enough, maybe I could’ve gotten rid of it,” Busby said. “We need help here for Dr. Brad Black.”
“Something needs to be done here because we’re getting new victims every month and yet there’s one doctor,” he added.
Sebelius replied that she was aware the CARD clinic has had an opening for an additional doctor for a year, and said she believed new incentives and scholarships available, as part of the health care bill, could encourage a physician and researcher to come to Libby.
“We’ve got some tools now as part of the overall bill that was passed to help the situation,” Sebelius said.
After the meeting, Busby said he found the situation, “very frustrating.”
“If I had a chance within a year’s time to find that spot on my lungs, I would like to hurry up and get something done,” Busby said. “How big is that thing going to grow in that time?”
In a later interview, Black, the lone physician at the CARD clinic, said he has been trying to find an additional doctor who could both treat patients and conduct research on the type of asbestos contamination unique to Libby.
“It’s too much for one physician to follow everybody over time,” Black said. “We’ve been trying for a considerable period of time to recruit somebody that would have the skills.”
Black believes moving the clinic into a better facility, its affiliations with prestigious medical institutions and new incentives encouraging doctors to practice in rural areas will help bring another doctor to Libby.
“We’ve been pushing it and they’ve been hearing it,” Black said, “so that’s good.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.