March 25, 2019

Baucus took 'vow' to help Libby residents harmed by asbestos

For residents of Libby ravaged by asbestos-related diseases, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has delivered on health care – including special government coverage like nowhere else in America.

“Just about every step of the way, Max has been there,” says Gayla Benefield, a Libby resident and activist who helped expose the asbestos pollution in Libby. “All we’ve had to do is ask, and he’s been right on it.”

Libby’s infamous asbestos problem stems from a now-defunct vermiculite mine last operated by W.R. Grace and Co. on the edge of town. Generations of workers at the mine breathed asbestos fibers from the vermiculite and brought the deadly fibers home on their clothes, infecting their families with lung disease as well.

Grace also left piles of low-grade vermiculite near the mine, for anyone to take. It was used in gardens, baseball fields, track fields and for home insulation throughout Libby, exposing hundreds more to its asbestos fibers.

More than 3,000 people from Libby have been diagnosed with asbestos-related lung disease, some 400 have died and the numbers continue to grow.

Libby residents diagnosed with the disease, however, have a unique benefit, thanks to Baucus: They are covered by Medicare, regardless of their age.

Medicare, usually reserved for Americans 65 or older, provides free hospital care, insurance for non-hospital care for about $105 a month and prescription drug coverage.

Tanis Hernandez, administrative director of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby, says ever-younger residents are coming to the clinic to get screened for asbestos lung diseases. If they screen positive, they get Medicare coverage.

Baucus, D-Mont., chief architect of the 2010 Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – wrote the Medicare provision into the bill, for citizens affected by contamination at Superfund sites declared a “public health emergency.” Libby is the only such site in the country.

Last week, Baucus also announced expansion to several counties near Libby of a pilot program covering some additional services not usually covered by Medicare, like home health assistance.

This special Medicare coverage isn’t the only help Baucus has helped arrange for Libby’s asbestos victims.

He helped get seed money and grants for the clinic, which provides free screening for Libby residents, secured funding to help pay for its expansion, pushed for the 2009 public health emergency declaration, and supported a $10 million grant in 2011 to cover future screening costs.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without his support,” Hernandez says. “He’s always been there to hear the latest concerns and struggles, and to try to find a solution.”

Baucus visited Libby last summer, and brought along the head of the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services with him. He said Libby had been a top priority for him, since meeting victims and activists 14 years earlier.

“I made a vow to myself,” he said, “(that) I would do whatever it took to help the people of Libby.”


Baucus took 'vow' to help Libby residents harmed by asbestos

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