Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Asbestos Compensation Hearings Held

The Senate Judiciary Committe held a hearing yesterday on the asbestos compensation bill, S. 852, co-sponsored by Senator's Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Pat Leahy (D-VT).

AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario summed up the labor federation's main issues.
Over the past three years, as we have worked on this legislation, we have listened to the concerns and proposals put forward by business and insurers, and have attempted to be responsive. In the interest of reaching agreement on legislation we have compromised on our initial position that all claimants deserve a monetary award. We have accepted a much lower level of overall funding for the program than we think will be actually required to meet anticipated claims. And, while we have pushed for full transparency on the funding mechanisms and participant contributions, we have not made such disclosures a condition of our endorsement.

But on the fundamental issue of ensuring that the legislation will create a system that will, in fact, deal with victims fairly and pay timely compensation to those who are sick from asbestos disease, we can accept no compromise that does not achieve this basic objective. It is not in victims’ interests to trade one flawed system for another that has serious identifiable problems and deficiencies and threatens to leave many individuals worse off. These serious problems include the exclusion of thousands of asbestos-related lung cancer claims, leaving most victims with no remedy during the start-up period, the inclusion of restrictions preventing individuals with both asbestos and silica disease from obtaining access to the courts or fair compensation from the fund, unworkable statute of limitations provisions that could bar tens of thousands of worthy claims, and program sunset provisions that could leave claimants in limbo should the fund run out of money.
The main issue is 25,000 - 30,000 people would be left out of the fund. This group was extensively exposed to asbestos, have lung cancer with no obvious signs of underlying asbestos disease, but who also smoked.

The AFL-CIO is also supporting the ability of terminally ill and seriously disabled victims to continue to use the courts until the fund is functioning.

The insurance industry is opposing the bill because of "leakage" -- the ability of terminally ill and other disabled asbestos victims to continue to use courts until the fund becomes operational and after it runs out of money.

Despite the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers continue to support the bill. Although the UAW recognizes some of the bill's flaws, UAW Legislative Director Alan Reuther explained that "The UAW firmly believes that the no-fault asbestos compensation system established under the Specter-Leahy bill would be vastly preferable to the current tort system."

In addition,
As a result of the mass of law suits filed against companies that produced or used products containing asbestos, a number of auto parts companies have been forced into bankruptcy. In addition, rising claims against major auto manufacturers threaten to expose them to significant liabilities in the future, posing a major threat to their long-term economic health and the jobs and benefits of hundreds of thousands of active and retired UAW members.


The system established under the Specter-Leahy bill would ensure that the costs of compensating victims of asbestos-related diseases are spread broadly across defendant companies and insurers in a rational, predictable manner. This will help to reduce business bankruptcies, thereby protecting the jobs and benefits of hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees.
The committee is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow. If it passes, it will be sent to the Senate floor. No bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives yet, and it is not clear whether they would pass the same bill.

Meanwhile, the The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) met with Senator Specter yesterda in Washington to demonstrate their opposition to the bill. ADAO Co-Founder and Executive Director Linda Reinstein outlined their opposition to the bill: the elimination of a person's basic right to have their grievances heard in court, vast under-funding, unwarranted ineligibility and exclusion of claims, faulty medical criteria, burdensome claims processes, insufficient up front funding, lack of equitable transition for current cases, under funding for research into potential treatments and a cure, lack of proper definition for financial awards and too much power in the hands of the Administrator.

According to Reinstein,
"The bottom line is that Senate Bill 852 was written without the voice of the victims. At the same time, it protects the asbestos industry and cuts its liability at every turn...I believe the victims' organizations gathered here today - and the thousands of victims we represent across the country - would support an asbestos resolution bill -- if it was fair and equitable. There are solutions to this problem. But, they are not represented in this bill. Ladies and gentleman, asbestos companies are not victims. Congress should only pass legislation that properly protects and supports those who are."