‘Another Step Forward’ for Libby

By Beacon Staff

This week Gayla Benefield will make the drive down U.S. Highway 2 from Libby to Kalispell and she’s bringing a message: the people of Libby, and elsewhere, are still suffering.

Last week Montana Sen. Max Baucus announced the expansion of health services for victims of asbestos poisoning in Libby through the Affordable Care Act. Starting July 1, Medicare will cover additional costs related to victims’ treatment, including home care, special medical equipment, travel expenses, counseling and prescription drugs not previously covered.

“The people of Libby and Lincoln County suffered a horrendous injustice in the name of greed,” Baucus said in a press release. “We have a responsibility to help them heal however we can.”

In 1999 the Environmental Protection Agency began to respond to local concerns that asbestos-related disease and death was considerably higher in Libby and the surrounding areas because of vermiculite mining during the 20th Century. In 2009 the EPA declared the first ever public health emergency, which made Medicare available to victims. Last week those benefits were extended with a permanent pilot program.

Prior to this expansion of benefits the only way victims could pay for these other related expenses was through occasional state grants or out of pocket, according to Tanis Hernandez, an administrative director at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby.

“We would hop from one pot of money to the next,” Hernandez said. “To have a long-term solution is a huge relief.”

But one of the victims worries that this isn’t enough and that some have been left out.

Benefield knows more than most about the effects of the vermiculite and asbestos that was mined by W. R. Grace. Both of her parents, her brother and numerous friends all fell victim to diseases related to asbestos. Now both she and her husband suffer from asbestosis and just last year one of her five children formed pleural plaquing in her lungs.

Since the death of her parents, Benefield became one of the most vocal residents about the pollution in Libby, helping lead the charge against W. R. Grace and getting the EPA involved more than a decade ago. Last week’s announcement of expanded health services for her and other victims was welcomed by Benefield, but she said more should be done.

“This program is wonderful and it’s another step forward, but like any new program it has some issues,” she said.

Benefield is concerned that the expanded coverage only benefits current residents of Lincoln and Flathead counties, adding that of the 1,300 patients at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, 526 live outside of the area, moving elsewhere after they were affected.

According to a Baucus representative the expansion of benefits was targeted at those who currently live in the immediate area of Libby because doctors and medical providers there are the most equipped to deal with the unique situation.

“We achieved a major victory for Libby when we finally secured the Public Health Emergency Declaration in 2009,” Baucus said in a statement to the Flathead Beacon last week. “We won another battle when we brought permanent health care coverage to Libby asbestos victims under the new health care law. But the fight is not over. I will never turn my back on Libby and I’ll never stop fighting to bring each and every victim the tools they need to heal.”

Benefield plans on voicing her concerns at a series of meetings next week in Libby and Kalispell where people can learn more about the new benefits. For Benefield it is an issue that doesn’t just affect Northwest Montana, adding that more than 30 million homes across America have insulation with asbestos from Libby.

“This disease isn’t going to stop at Libby,” she said.

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