It’s safe to say not a day goes by without some part of Congress selling out to moneyed interests, and today was no exception. Today the House Committee on the Judiciary began fast-tracking a bill that obstructs promised compensation to asbestos victims. The Committee broke a promise to hold a public asbestos victims’ hearing and instead sent the bill to a full committee markup and vote without bothering even with a subcommittee vote.
The bill is H.R.982, called the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2013. It is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and based partly on “model” legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for state legislators. The bill would require asbestos victim compensation trust funds to make public the personal information of those making claims on the trust. It lays no burden of “transparency” on companies that exposed workers and others to asbestos, however.
Asbestos victims’ advocate Judy Van Ness, who lost her husband to asbestos-caused disease, said of the bill,
“The FACT Act forces the asbestos trust funds who administer claims to reveal on a public website personally identifiable information about us and our families including the last four digits of our social security number, private work history and personal information of children exposed at an early age. This information could be used to deny employment, credit and health, life and disability insurance. It could also make us more vulnerable to identity thieves, con men and other types of predators.”
Some background — Because of his flameproofing properties, use of asbestos exploded in the 20th century, in ships, building materials, and machine and auto parts. Internal documents revealed during litigation showed that asbestos industry officials knew that breathing asbestos particles causes severe lung disease by the 1930s. The connection between asbestos and the deadly mesothelioma cancer was well documented in medical journals by the early 1960s. Yet the industry continued to recklessly expose workers and consumers to asbestos while aggressively lobbying against government safety regulations.
Not until the late 1970s did the Consumer Product Safety Commission ban asbestos use in wallboard patching compounds and gas fireplaces. And not until 1989 did the EPA attempt to ban most other asbestos products, a ban partly overturned by a federal appeals court in 1991.
Today there are stringent regulations regarding handling and disposal of asbestos, but all those years of recklessness have taken a toll. It is estimated that 10,000 U.S. workers die each year from asbestos exposure.
As asbestos manufacturers faced lawsuits from sick and dying workers, many went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect their assets. Some of these manufacturers were required to set up asbestos personal injury trusts, which were responsible for compensating present and future claimants. The FACT Act of 2013 would require these trusts to disclose much personal information about the claimants, a requirement that seems to have little purpose except to dissuade people from filing claims. (According to the General Accounting Office, personal information about individual claimants may be obtained today with the permission of the claimants or in response to a legitimate subpoena, but otherwise the privacy of claimants is respected.)
FACT would also create delays in addressing claims, which creates great hardship for the victims. Most mesothelioma patients die within six to eighteen months of the diagnosis.
Industry associations and “tort reform” organizations have spread stories for years about greedy litigants looking for “jackpot” jury awards and alleged asbestos victims gouging money out of every company in sight without even being sick. The fact is that the trusts are set up with all kinds of safeguards against fraud.
The Asbestos Cancer Victims’ Rights Campaign has an online petition to stop the FACT Act. The larger point, though, is that this is just one more example of the way Congress, especially the House, has stopped working for the People.