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USA: work on asbestos bill gets off to a slow start

Work by the US senate committee on the bill to reform asbestos settlements began 19 June 2003 as the panel started their detailed examination of medical issues around asbestos-related diseases.
The S…

Work by the US senate committee on the bill to reform asbestos settlements began 19 June 2003 as the panel started their detailed examination of medical issues around asbestos-related diseases. The Senate Judiciary Committee soon came up against a major dispute in the bill: the establishment of the medical criteria to assess eligibility of victims for payouts from a proposed USD 108 billion restitution fund. The panel opened debate on the bill but was not expected to complete work until the following week. Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican,Utah) of the Senate Judiciary Committee said negotiators “have come a long way” toward resolving objections to the bill. However, the panel“s top Democrat, Senator Patrick Leahy (Vermont.) said agreements to date resolved “housekeeping” issues and added that “fundamental concerns have not been resolved.” The prospects for the bill are unclear: Kim Wallace, an analyst with Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH) in Washington, said in a note to clients that “we maintain our recent pessimistic outlook” and said negotiations “lack a sense of urgency.” Sen. Hatch“s bill would replace the current legal structure with a special five-judge federal “Court of Asbestos Claims” to deal with asbestos-related cases. A USD 108 billion trust fund would be set up to pay claims and the bill would provide immunity for defendant companies in asbestos cases. Defendant companies and the insurance industry would each pay USD 45 billion into the fund, with the balance coming from a bankruptcy trust fund and other sources. The measure is supported by business and the insurance industry but other powerful groups such as organized labor and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America are against the bill as it is currently drafted. Much of the session was devoted to testimony by Dr. Jim Crapo, a professor at the National Jewish Center and University of Colorado in Denver, and Dr. Laura Welch, medical director of the Center to Protect Workers Rights, which is affiliated with the union AFL-CIO. Dr. Welch attacked Sen. Hatch“s bill, on the grounds that it could restrict some people who have been diagnosed with the early signs of asbestos disease, known as a pleural thickening of the lung, from qualifying for payments from the new fund. Senator Hatch responded that they would be monitored and could qualify for payments if they later become sick. Dr. Crapo took issue with part of Dr. Welch“s analysis, saying the pleural disease represents a sign of asbestos exposure but not necessarily a physical impairment. Dr. Crapo welcomed the medical criteria Sen. Hatch proposed. “I think they are quite generous,” he said. “I think people with real disease will be compensated.” Also at issue was the extent to which smokers should be eligible for payments from the fund since most lung cancer cases are caused by tobacco use. The medical problems caused by asbestos exposure are very similar to those from cigarette smoking, Dr. Crapo said. Another dispute involved whether people with colorectal cancer should be eligible for payments. Sen. Hatch said he wants to ensure the fund will cover individuals made ill by asbestos exposure. “We have a system that is completely broken,” Sen. Hatch said. “We have hundreds of thousands of cases brought by people who are not ill.” The rate of firms filing for bankruptcy over asbestos claims has gone up in recent years. Since 2000, more than 20 firms, including Owens Corning, have filed for bankruptcy.

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