White House Policies Have Major Implications for Libby

State and local officials worry about impacts if ACA is repealed, EPA funds cut

By Justin Franz
Downtown Libby. Beacon File Photo

More than 2,000 miles separate Washington, D.C. from Libby, but decisions made in the former could have major impacts on the latter.

State and local officials are concerned about what might happen to Lincoln County residents who have come to rely on medical coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act. President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to repeal and replace the legislation, which was a cornerstone of former President Barack Obama’s agenda.

While the ACA, also known as Obamacare, impacted millions of people across the country, it had a specifically profound effect in Libby, thanks to former Sen. Max Baucus. In 2009, Baucus added provisions to the health care act enabling Libby residents to be screened for asbestos-related diseases and, if diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, making them eligible for Medicare coverage. According to Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), more than 4,500 individuals have been screened because of ACA and nearly half of them were found to have asbestos-related diseases.

Dr. Brad Black, medical director for CARD, said the protections given to Libby residents under the ACA are critical because asbestos-related diseases are known to lie in wait for upwards of 40 years after the initial exposure.

“Based on current trends of new patients and diagnosis rates, it is clear that these programs will be important for many years into the future,” Black said.

Protecting the ACA’s Libby provisions is gaining bipartisan support as well, as Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, have vowed to work to maintain the residents’ coverage. Although Daines supports repealing and replacing Obamacare, he wrote a letter in support of the Libby coverage to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans.

Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck said he appreciates Tester and Daines fighting to keep the provisions.

“We want to make sure that the people sickened by asbestos-related diseases here are continued to be taken care of,” he said.

But changes to health care are not the only issue on Libby’s radar. Local officials are also keeping an eye on how President Trump’s administration deals with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been heading up the decade-long asbestos cleanup in Lincoln County. Trump has vowed to make drastic cuts to the EPA’s budget.

But Nick Raines, manager of the federally funded Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program, said two factors are in Libby’s favor when it comes to cuts at the EPA: one, the cleanup in Lincoln County is almost complete and, two, much of the money that funds the local cleanup originates from a budget outside of the EPA’s regular coffers, specifically dollars from the W.R. Grace & Co. settlement.

“We’re slightly less concerned than other communities with Superfunds because we’re close to the end of this cleanup,” Raines said.

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