Rep. Vento's widow lobbies against House asbestos bill

The widow of Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), who died in 2000 due to cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, is calling on Congress to reject legislation that she says would make it harder to asbestos victims to receive compensation.

Susan Vento is with the Asbestos Cancer Victims Rights Campaign, and she opposes a GOP bill that would require the 60 asbestos trusts around the country to file quarterly reports about who is filing claims for compensation. Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), say it's meant to help reduce multiple or fraudulent filings with the trusts.

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But Vento says she and other opponents fear that the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act, H.R. 982, would allow the trusts to make public confidential information about claimants.

"The bill … will require patients and their families to divulge the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, personal financial information, and information about their dependents on a public website," she told reporters Tuesday. "I don't call that transparency, I call that a cruel and chilling invasion of privacy."

The bill that the House will consider Wednesday only requires reports to include the name and exposure history of claimants, and the basis for paying out a claim. It also specifically says confidential medical records and claimants' full social security number cannot be included.

But Vento and others say that opens the door to using the last four digits of Social Security numbers and possibly other information, which they say violates their privacy and could lead to identity theft.

Vento noted that House Republicans did not let her testify in a hearing on the legislation earlier this year.

"We were not permitted to testify that day, or at any subsequent hearing despite our written request to be heard," she said.

In 1994, Congress passed legislation allowing the establishment of asbestos trusts. Companies in bankruptcy can form a trust to pay out claims and avoid further litigation for asbestos claims once they are reorganized from bankruptcy.

Aside from worrying about identity theft, opponents argue that the FACT Act could slow down compensation decisions, particularly for people in certain states.

Jason Johns of the Wisconsin Asbestos Victims Network spoke to reporters with Vento, and said some states require claimants to seek compensation through the trusts before going to state court to seek damages against a solvent company. He and Michelle Schwartz of the Alliance for Justice say the new reporting requirements in the bill would slow down the work of the trusts in paying out claims.

Schwartz claimed it could take "tens of thousands of hours" to compile quarterly reports on who is applying and who has been paid.

Opponents also dismissed the idea that there is rampant fraud within the 60 asbestos trusts across the nation.

"There hasn't been fraud," said Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

Schwartz also said the reported error rate in payments at the trusts has been 0.35 percent, a rate that Vento said is low enough for Congress to ignore.

"I don't consider that a seriously problem that requires Congress's time," she said.

Rep. Vento developed malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung caused by exposure to asbestos. He was first elected in 1976, and served until his death in 2000.