FACT Act attacks asbestos victims

In a few days, Americans will observe Veterans Day.  Some will observe it with a day off from work or checking out the special Veterans Day sales that will be held in department stores. But the real meaning of the day should be to think about the great sacrifices of the men and women who deserve to be honored. Instead, these same honorable men and women may be dishonored by a Congressional vote next week on the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act.

Asbestos, a known human carcinogen that has killed millions of people over the last several decades, has not been banned in the United States. It remains a threat to Americans in our homes, schools, and workplaces, and approximately one-third of all victims are veterans. Environmental disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy exposed many more people to asbestos dangers. Meanwhile, experts estimate that about 10,000 people die in the U.S. every year as a result of exposure to asbestos. 

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We watched our husbands die from mesothelioma, caused by asbestos. Former Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) died from mesothelioma 13 years ago, after being exposed to asbestos in three different worksites while working his way through college to become a junior high science teacher on the east side of St. Paul, Minn. Richard Van Ness died Aug. 30 2012. His exposure began while serving in the forward engine room on the USS Charles R. Ware destroyer (1968-1971). Both men served their country with distinction and died needlessly. This makes us do everything we can to fight for other victims and families.

The FACT Act is a cruel twist on a cruel disease, one that blames the victims for whatever meager compensation they may receive for lives cut dramatically short. It blames families that have to watch dear loved ones struggle to take their final breaths and smears them by saying they get too much. It is no more than blatant catering to the highly-financed interests of the asbestos industry, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the National Chamber of Commerce, and Georgia Pacific, owned by the Koch brothers. It is not about transparency at all.

Instead the FACT Act would require the unbelievable disclosure on a public website of asbestos victims’ personal information, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, financial information, information about their children and other sensitive data that could subject victims and their families to identity theft and possible criminal victimization.  The bill is completely lopsided – asbestos companies have no such “transparency” requirements. It passed the House Judiciary Committee 17-14 last spring with the committee refusing to hear from victims and families who will be affected by the bill's exposure of their personal information.

The bill’s supporters claim mistakenly that it is needed to prevent fraud by asbestos victims when filing claims to company trusts and accuse the asbestos victims of ripping off the system.  The asbestos company trusts were structured to enable the companies responsible for the lethal poisoning of workers to use bankruptcy reorganization to continue operating.

The Government Accountability Office(GAO) analyzed many company trusts and found no evidence of fraud.  Instead, a recent newspaper investigation of claims found only 0.35 percent of “anomalies” and those included clerical errors by the claims administrators of the company trusts.

If anyone is getting ripped off, it’s the asbestos victims and their families.  The Rand Institute found that the median payment is 25 cents on the dollar to asbestos victims, with some payments as low as 1.1 percent of the claim filed. HR 982 victimizes all asbestos victims, including veterans, exposing them to identity theft and further harm.

We expect our nation to respect and honor our veterans. The U.S. Congress needs to do the honorable deed and reject this bill.

Vento, widow of former Rep. Bruce F. Vento, (D-Minn) and Van Ness, widow of Richard Van Ness, are with the Asbestos Cancer Victims’ Rights Campaign.