For years, advocates for people with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases have successfully fought efforts to pass a controversial bill that would make it significantly more difficult for asbestos victims to file claims, likely delaying their receiving compensation.
But now, emboldened by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and with a President who has lauded asbestos as safe, there is a renewed effort to pass the bill, and anti-asbestos advocates are worried that it has a much better chance for passage than ever before. On Wednesday, their efforts got a big boost when the House Judiciary Committee approved the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act of 2017 by vote of 19 to 11.
The bill, which has long been backed by asbestos industry interests and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will now be scheduled for a vote by the full House of Representatives. The committee vote was strictly along party lines, with 19 Republicans voting for it and 11 Democrats opposing it.
Proponents have argued that the FACT Act is needed to ensure transparency and root out fraud by making sure claimants aren’t able to “double dip” by claiming their injury twice, but critics say that claim is nonsense. Among other things, the critics say it would require publicly disclosing personal information about the people seeking compensation, and would likely deter some victims from filing claims at all.
A Disaster for Mesothelioma Victims
“The FACT Act is a disaster for asbestos and mesothelioma victims,” said Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). “The bill aims to delay and deny compensation to those who are or will become sick from asbestos-related diseases. In addition, the bill violates the privacy of asbestos victims, releasing sensitive information via a public website.”
Susan Vento, whose husband and longtime Congressman Bruce Vento died of mesothelioma in 2000, agreed. “The brutal facts about the FACT Act are that it will impair the legal rights and privacy rights of past, current and future victims of mesothelioma and their families.” She added that the FACT Act of 2017 “will tip the scales of justice in favor of the industries who manufactured and distributed asbestos and exposed so many workers, members of the military and their families to asbestos.”
Added Pamela Gilbert, former executive director of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC): “The FACT Act has nothing to do with transparency. The bill will make it more difficult for asbestos victims to seek compensation from the wrongdoers who are responsible by adding delay, cost and complexity to the process. It is designed to intimidate patients and family members from filing claims, and even worse, the delay will mean that many victims will die before they ever receive a dime. It is cruel legislation that benefits only the asbestos industry and their insurers.”
Up to 15,000 Americans continue to die each year from asbestos-triggered disease. The FACT Act, warned Alex Formuzis of the Environmental Working Group, would disproportionately harm veterans, first-responders, and teachers, groups that have a higher incidence of mesothelioma than the general public.
Protecting Industry, Harming People
“There has been much hyperbolic rhetoric in recent weeks about building a wall,” Formuzis said. “The (FACT Act) would erect a different kind of wall that would ultimately insulate the asbestos industry from its victims, and allow corporations to escape responsibility from compensating these hardworking Americans, including veterans, construction workers, auto mechanics and first responders, from realizing some small measure of justice.”
This is at least the fourth time supporters have tried to get a similar bill passed in Congress. It was first introduced in 2012, but failed to get anywhere. In 2013, a similar bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to gain approval by the Senate. In 2016, it again passed the House, though by a smaller margin, but never came up for a vote in the Senate.
The Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act of 2017 was sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who has also sponsored previous versions of the bill. It was co-sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas).
Concern Over Trump
Advocates for asbestos-related disease victims say the FACT Act has a better chance of passing this year because Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the White House. President Barack Obama had pledged to veto the FACT Act even if it passed Congress, but advocates say they cannot count on President Donald Trump, who has stated that asbestos is “100 percent safe, once applied.”
“This is nothing new. ADAO has been fighting versions of this bill every year in the 13 years since our founding,” said Reinstein. “This year the slap carries extra sting because we’re concurrently fighting a Republican Congress and anti-science administration,” said Reinstein.
“We had a White House in our corner during the previous deliberations of the FACT Act,” said Vento. “I am very concerned about where the current administration will land. Although I’m confident about the compelling and thoroughly honest stories patients and families tell describing the pain and anguish asbestos has inflicted on them, I am not as confident that the current administration will put those interests ahead of corporations,” she said.
Nonetheless, Vento and others who oppose the FACT Act have vowed to continue the fight to defeat the FACT Act of 2017.
“Our biggest hope is to keep telling our stories and maybe change some minds,” said Vento.