Health care 

Bill a boon for Libby

One of the so-called "special deals" inserted into the health care reform legislation signed by President Obama last week will provide Medicare coverage to victims of asbestos poisoning in Libby.

But Sen. Max Baucus, who as one of the main architects of the legislation included the provision, says it's not a special deal at all. Rather, it fulfills a commitment made three decades ago to victims of public health emergencies across the country.

"In 1980, Congress went through a comprehensive and transparent process to pass a law on the federal response to environmental disasters," Baucus said in a statement. "[The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act] said that the federal government has a responsibility to clean up those disasters, and in the worst cases, the federal government has a responsibility to provide screening and medical care to the victims."

Libby is the worst case. Last June, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Libby Superfund site as the agency's first-ever public health emergency, promising millions of dollars to clean up asbestos released by the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. An initial $6 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant was sent to Libby in November to provide treatment and health care screenings for its residents. The Baucus provision in the new health care law effectively extends that grant.

Kimberly Rowse, clinical coordinator at Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease, lauds Baucus' effort to provide health care for communities around the country designated as Superfund sites.

"Libby is kind of the pilot test to develop the model," Rowse says, "with the idea that in the future this model can be reproduced in other situations."

Even U.S. Rep Denny Rehberg, who staunchly opposed the new health care reform law, defends the Libby provision.

"Libby has waited long enough," says Rehberg spokesman Jed Link, "and their inclusion in the bill is certainly warranted as a medical situation."

It's unclear when victims of asbestos poisoning in Libby can expect Medicare benefits to begin.

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