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Obamacare Repeal Means Uncertainty For Libby Residents Suffering From Asbestos

David McCumber, editor of the Montana Standard in Butte, MT.
Mike Albans
Montana Standard Editor David McCumber.

In 2009 Montana Senator Max Baucus helped write special provisions into the Affordable Care act that ensure extra help and healthcare are available to residents in Libby who are suffering from asbestos-related disease. But some Montana residents are concerned that if Obamacare is repealed and replaced, these provisions will disappear.

MTPR's Nora Saks speaks with David McCumber, editor of the Montana Standard to learn more.

Nora Saks: David McCumber thanks so much for joining us on Montana Public Radio in Butte.

David McCumber: It's  pleasure, as always Nora, and doubly so that you're here instead of doing this by phone.

NS: There's a lot of national conversation about the possible repeal or modification of the Affordable Care Act, and that might have a very real effect on a certain community in northwest Montana. Can you tell us a little bit about who that community is?

DM: Absolutely Nora. We're talking about the asbestos-related-disease sufferers in Libby Montana. In 1999 it was revealed that the vermiculite mine there near Libby was terribly contaminated, the ore was contaminated with asbestos. And for many years, more than 50 years, not only were the miners exposed to lethal levels of asbestos, but so were their families and so was Libby as a whole. There has been a lot of asbestos-related disease in the area. Some 400 people have died, and over 2,000 more have been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, which is basically either asbestosis — you basically suffocate, it's a terrible disease — lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a very deadly cancer of the lining of the lung. And the only way you can get mesothelioma is from exposure to asbestos. The disease has a latency period; sometimes it can be 20, 30, 40 years later when you get sick. Because of that, nobody knows when the incidence of disease is gonna peak in Libby. So there are more cases being diagnosed all the time.

When the Affordable Care Act was being constructed in 2009, Max Baucus the Democratic senator from Montana was the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and he was able to write into the ACA special provisions for Libby asbestos sufferers. He basically set up three things, one was the screening program where residents of Libby can be screened to see if they have signs of the disease. Two, anybody in Libby of any age that begins to show symptoms of asbestos-related disease can go on Medicare, no matter how old they are. And then the third thing is something called a pilot program which provides all manner of support for the victims of asbestos. So those three things really help the asbestos disease sufferers live the best life they can. The concern is that if and when the Affordable Care Act is repealed, whatever replaces it would not contain those same provisions for the people of Libby.

NS: Can you describe for us what Max Baucus as a U.S. Senator from Montana on the Senate Finance Committee, what that position meant to protecting the people of Libby and getting these special provisions into the law?

DM: At that moment in time in 2009 as the Affordable Care Act was being written, he was in the majority and he was chairman of the Finance Committee. So from that position he was able to actually write language into the bill that provided these special benefits for the people from Libby. It just shows how important and how powerful leadership positions are in the U.S. Senate and in Congress. And he was the right person at the right time in the right place for Libby.

NS: You spoke to Senator Jon Tester and a representative from Senator Daines' office over the weekend, and there are some conflicting thoughts about what would be needed to protect these provisions for Libby residents. Can you speak to that a little bit?

DM: First of all, I did interview Senator Tester who is extremely concerned about this, said that he feel that if Obamacare is completely repealed and then replaced with something it[ll be next to impossible to replicate those special provisions. He feels that when that law dies, those provisions will die with it.

Senator Daines' office thought there's a good chance the provisions would survive "repeal and replace" of Obamacare. There's just disagreement as to whether repealing the Affordable Care Act will actually bring those provisions to an end.

I should note that just a few moments ago, Senator Daines' office called and passed along the news that Senator Daines spoke with both Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker of the House Ryan over the weekend and asked specifically that the Libby provisions be preserved in the new healthcare legislation. So, no guarantees, but obviously that's a very welcome development.

NS: Is there anything Libby residents are doing in the mean time while they're waiting to find out what's going to happen?

DM: There's really not much they can do. They are watching and waiting. Really they're kind of hostages to fortune here. They really don't have much of a way to impact the outcome.

NS: You have a special connection to these Libby residents and you actually helped break the asbestos story back in 1999. What is it like for these resident that you knew then, and still know, to be back in the news trying to figure out how to navigate the road ahead with healthcare?

DM: Unfortunately several of the people I got to know best while we were working on the story have died of asbestos-related disease in the mean time. I should say that reporter Andrew Schneider who was a colleague of mine — a two-time Pulitzer winning public health reporter — broke the story of Libby. I had assigned him to another environmental story in Montana and while he was on that assignment he discovered the situation in Libby and then wrote about it pretty much nonstop for the next two, two-and-a-half years after that. We just lost Andy a few weeks ago which is still very fresh in my mind, and as I reported this story I couldn't help but think Andy should be doing this story.

So in any event I do have a special connection both to the people of Libby and to this story. It's one of the most shocking environmental disasters in our country's history. The cleanup in Libby has been going on since late 1999. EPA showed up in town three days after our first story ran and they have not left. They've been working all that time to try to clean Libby up. You can see the importance of that sort of work and that's another reason why there's a lot of concern around Libby's fate under the new administration.

NS: David McCumber thank you so much for joining us on Montana Public Radio, and shining a light on what's happening in Libby.

DM: Absolutely, it's my pleasure Nora.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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