Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Asbestos Agreement: Almost Out of Time and Patience

Imagine my pleasure and surprise the other day when I read in the New York Times: "Agreement Reached on Asbestos Bill."

Labor, industry, trial lawyers, and insurance companies have been trying, in vain, for years to reach an agreement on fair and affordable compensation for victims of asbestos exposure. An agreement had been reached on the concept of a trust fund, but there was no agreement on the size. Until now?

So you can imagine my disappointment when I actually read beyond the headline and discovered that the only participants in teh agreement were the insurers and manufacturers -- but no labor. What did they agree to? A trust fund that was $40 billion smaller than the already too small version agreed to by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Neither the AFL-CIO nor the Washington Post were amused.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist badly wants an agreement before Congress adjourns next month, but time and tempers are growing short:
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, sponsor of an earlier proposal for an asbestos victims' fund that congressional auditors say would be worth about $136 billion, was more blunt.

"They (the unions) have to get off their duffs and tell us what they want," Hatch told Reuters in a Capitol hallway.

"That's not what they told us last week. They told us that (the $114 billion proposal) was their final offer," Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO's occupational health official, said when told of Frist's and Hatch's comments.

Seminario, speaking by telephone to Reuters, said it was not fair to say that labor had not made its position clear. Months ago, she said, the AFL-CIO said it favored a proposal by Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy that would provide a compensation fund for asbestos victims of between $128 billion and $185 billion.

She said AFL-CIO officials were prepared to continue talking to senators about the issue, but doubted a bill of such complexity could be finished in the waning weeks of this year.