While Grace Thrives, Libby Residents Face Deadlines for Healthcare Coverage

Welcome to Libby

Welcome to the start of a new column series by Michelle Whitmer, an Associate Editor who has been researching, writing and editing at The Mesothelioma Center for five years. Today’s opinion column is in response to the recent deadline for Libby residents to enroll in the Libby Medical Trust Plan, a topic that Tim Povtak reported on last Thursday in our news center.

Libby residents have an intriguing relationship with deadlines.

They face deadlines for medical care, deadlines for filing legal claims and deadlines for their personal health. With more than half the town afflicted with asbestos-related disease, many residents sense the ultimate deadline — one set by an American company that flourishes amid bankruptcy — is coming too soon.

But the most recent and relevant deadline is today — the cutoff date to enroll in the Libby Medical Trust Plan.

As the replacement for the Libby Medical Program, the Medical Trust Plan was recently equipped with $19.5 million to help residents with healthcare costs. The old program was founded in 2009 by W.R. Grace & Company, which operated the nearby asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine for nearly 30 years.

W.R. Grace knew for decades that the asbestos in the Libby mine was poisoning their workers and the town — they even implemented a smoking ban when they learned the combination of asbestos and smoking would cost them years down the road once personal injury suits started filing in.

Despite their crimes against humanity — Grace was also involved in the TCE poisoning of Woburn, Mass. that caused a spike in childhood leukemia and inspired the book and movie “A Civil Action” — the company voluntarily started the Libby Medical Program and continued to fund it with $2 million a year throughout their bankruptcy proceedings.

The new Libby Medical Trust Plan will ensure some semblance of the old program will continue, at least until the $19.5 million runs out. Unfortunately, that will be in about three to four years.

As Tim Povtak reported, Libby residents who haven’t already applied can get applications from the Center for Asbestos Related Disease Clinic (CARD) or from Brian Bailey, the local independent insurance specialist who is volunteering his time and expertise to help with the trust distribution plan.

Baily explained that the plan will “reimburse people with asbestos disease $100 a month for their Medicare Part B premium and an additional $30 monthly for having adequate prescription or medical insurance coverage. These payments would be distributed twice a year, with a maximum annual payout of $1,560.”

So what will happen when the money runs out? Well, residents will have another trust set up by the Grace bankruptcy plan to draw from, dubbed the Asbestos Personal Injury Trust. The ultimate value of that trust is still being determined, but Grace will fork over between $375 and $490 million (dependent upon stock prices) and $250 million cash initially. The plan also includes $110 million a year for five years beginning in 2009 and then $100 million annually for 10 years beginning in 2024.

And about 1,000 Libby residents started receiving payouts this year from a $43 million settlement from Montana because the state failed to warn workers and residents about the dangers of asbestos from the mine. However, much of the individual settlements, which were expected to vary between $30,000 and $52,000, are going to outstanding Medicare liens.

According to a 2010 Associated Press article, about 15 to 20 new patients were walking into CARD each month to be diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases—a rate estimated to continue for about another decade. And since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cleanup plan keeps downsizing the scope of their decontamination efforts, asbestos exposure will continue for decades to come. Where will the new victims turn once the trust funds run out?

Will Grace voluntarily help those future victims? Their company slogan — “Enriching Lives, Everywhere.” — sits right next to this statement on their website: “As a company and as individuals, we have never wavered from our belief that one serious illness or lost life is one too many. That is why we have taken so seriously our commitment to our former Libby employees and the people of Libby.”

Despite these claims and their promising slogan, the corporation’s track record paints another picture.

A picture that Libby residents wish they could erase.

What are your thoughts on the situation in Libby? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at michelle@asbestos.com.

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