U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York launched his effort to block proposed legislation that would call for new, stiffer requirements for those seeking compensation from asbestos trusts.
Schumer, a Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on Health Care, said the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act of 2016, which recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, would unfairly target military veterans.
He vows to stop it from getting through the Senate.
“This is plain wrong,” Schumer said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week. “I’ll go to the mat to see that it doesn’t happen.”
The FACT Act merged this year with a larger bill. The new proposal is called the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2016 (H.R. 1927). The combined bill is now under consideration in the Senate.
The proposed legislation would require those seeking compensation from asbestos trusts to provide public disclosure of asbestos exposure history, basis for compensation, and work history. It also would require some personal data, including partial Social Security numbers. Opponents believe it would expose them to identity theft, placing an undue burden on those filing.
Proponents of the bill say it is designed to prevent fraudulent claims involving the asbestos trust funds, and reserve the funds for those entitled by law to be compensated. There is an estimated $30 billion spread across dozens of asbestos trusts that are designed to pay current and future claims.
Schumer and several advocacy groups, such as the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, say the added documentation would only make it more difficult for victims to be compensated and delay an already lengthy process.
“We shouldn’t be making it harder for victims of asbestos exposure to obtain compensation,” Schumer said. “I’m all for rooting out fraud, but we should do it with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, especially when we are talking about our veterans.”
Asbestos-related diseases, particularly mesothelioma, have hit veterans hard. Veterans represent approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population today, but they account for almost one-third of mesothelioma cases diagnosed annually. An estimated 3,000 cases overall are diagnosed each year in this country.
Veterans are especially vulnerable because of the military’s heavy reliance on asbestos use in the past, particularly by the U.S. Navy. Asbestos was especially valuable because of its strength, heat resistance and versatility. The use of asbestos has dropped significantly in recent decades, but the long latency period of mesothelioma (10-50 years), between exposure and diagnosis, means the problem isn’t going anyway anytime soon.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) say exposure remains a problem today because troops recently in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to the deadly mineral in older, damaged buildings they occupied.
“The most shocking part of this bill is that it leaves defenseless those who defended us by serving our country,” Schumer said. “It is an offensive invasion of privacy. It would not only delay the compensation process, it would intimidate those suffering from asbestos-related disease.”
Current state and federal laws treat trust fund negotiations as private and confidential and not admissible in court cases. Under the FACT Act, the trust funds would be required to release quarterly reports with information on the victims that could be used in asbestos liability cases.
Even before Schumer’s recent efforts, the bill was expected to not make it past the Senate or President Barack Obama. This is the third time in four years the House passed a version of the FACT Act. The Senate halted all three previous attempts of enactment.
Obama’s senior advisors released a statement earlier this month saying they would recommend he veto H.R. 1927 if it came before him.
“Based on the false assertion that there is endemic fraud in the asbestos trust system, H.R. 1927 would impose mandatory disclosure requirements that would threaten their privacy, make them more vulnerable to identity thieves and other predators, and potentially disadvantage them in many ways unrelated to asbestos exposure,” read the statement released by the Executive Office of the President.