Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"Beyond Outrage" Asbestos Bill Comes To Senate Floor

After years of backroom discussion, frontroom discussions, meetings, hearings and studies, the Asbestos Compensation bill (S. 852) was debated today on the floor of the United States Senate.

And what a debate it was:
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) objected to allowing a vote on the bill. He spoke only a few moments before uttering the name of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said in his opening remarks.

Corporations that, without the legislation, might be required to pay billions in legal awards to victims should be "jumping with joy," he added. "They were able to buy their way into the Senate paying for a bunch of lobbyists."

"Slander!" responded Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose stewardship of the bill for more than two years helped it survive the committee process to become the first new measure the Senate considered this year.

"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is -- is -- is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter said. "It's beyond outrage."
Reid later apologized to Specter, reversed course and removed his objection to debating the bill.

The bill, under which companies and their insurers would contribute $140 billion to a trust fund that would compensate victims of asbestos exposure, was passed by the committee last May with the support of three Democrats (including Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy) and ten Republicans, but negotiations have continued. The bill would pay $25,000 to those with mild breathing impairments and $1.1 million to victims of a rare and deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma, but victims would be barred from suing companies that manufactured asbestos unless the fund runs out of money.

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. But the bill has the strong support of big business and the National Association of Manufacturers.

According to Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, who opposes the bill:
The argument that there are serious inadequacies in the way asbestos cases are adjudicated today does not mean that any legislation is better than the current system. Our first obligation is to do no harm. We should not be supporting legislation that excludes many seriously ill victims from receiving compensation and that fails to provide a guarantee of adequate funding to make sure injured workers will actually receive what the bill promises them. This bill will do harm.

The problem is that powerful corporate interests responsible for the asbestos epidemic have fought throughout this process to escape full accountability for the harm they have inflicted. As a result, the focus has shifted from what these companies should pay victims to what they are willing to pay them. That is preventing the Senate from enacting Trust Fund legislation that will truly help the workers who have been seriously injured by this industrial plague.
Despite the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers continue to support the bill. The AFL is opposed due to 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 Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), a group of Asbestos victims, as well as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America are strongly opposed to the bill for similar reasons.

Meanwhile, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook called the proposed fund "a corporate bailout in sheep’s clothing.” Claybrook used the example of a recent settlement with the Chicago-based building materials company USG Corp, which last month entered a bankruptcy agreement in which it agreed to pay $900 million into a victim compensation fund, followed by another $3.05 billion by next year if a federal fund, currently being debated, is not approved. But if the federal fund is approved, USG would only have to pay the initial $900 million.

According to Claybrook,
Under the guise of compensating victims for terrible diseases, like asbestosis and mesothelioma, corporate America’s real aim is to run away from billions in liability for knowingly exposing workers to a lethal toxin.
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