New state laws could put an end to the Montana State Fund, which helps pay for asbestos-related workers compensation claims. The Fund is a nonprofit organization appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state.
Nearly 30 years ago, Montana’s workers compensation insurance had a deficit of $157 million and unfunded liabilities of $500 million. At that time, the Montana State Legislature took $20 million from the general fund to stop the gap and created two separate funds. The New Fund is for injury claims made as of July 1, 1990, and the Old Fund applies to claims made prior to that date.
Because of the long latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, the Old Fund is still taking claims today from exposures that happened before 1990. The Montana State Fund strengthened the Old Fund’s financial state by taking a long-term view on investments and holding rates steady. Most of the Old Fund’s claims are for workers who were exposed to asbestos in the vermiculite mines near Libby in Montana.
Now, nearly half the population of Libby has been diagnosed with asbestos disease in addition to the 200 who have died from exposure to the asbestos-tainted vermiculite.
Many individuals, as well as a number of trade and labor unions, have been fighting to receive compensation for asbestos victims. The Montana State Fund rewards businesses that invest in preventing asbestos exposure and ensure the safety of their employees. Businesses that provide supplemental training and safety equipment can get assistance for those programs.
The 300-employee Fund is in a strong financial place, distributing its biggest dividend ever of $35 million to 23,000 policyholders this year. But two bills have been drafted that could jeopardize the future of the Montana State Fund.
Bill draft LC 144 would get rid of the Montana State Fund altogether. State Senator Eric Moore (R- Miles City) believes private insurance companies would decrease their rates if the fund were to be eliminated as a competitor. A private insurance company has given $40,500 so far to lobby for the proposal and encourage Moore to carry it through.
Senate Bill 369 would privatize the fund. While the existing fund is a nonprofit organization, it is currently overseen by the state. If this new bill passes, state officials would transition the fund, study its details, and make suggestions for the 2019 Legislature.
The first public hearing for the bills was held last week. Neither bill can continue its way through legislation without being reviewed and debated.