Thursday, February 9th, 2006.
The Doctor-Patient Alliance for Responsible Asbestos Policy today repeated its call on the U.S. Senate to cure fatal flaws in the proposed Asbestos Trust Fund bill (SB 852).
Last July, the nationwide group of 34 doctors who treat mesothelioma patients urged the U.S. Senate to remove the “one-size-fits-all” cap on awards and install a due process hearing, at which patients could prove their special medical and financial hardship damages and have their award tailored accordingly. The claims review system would be modeled after the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.
In addition, the Doctor-Patient Alliance asked for assurances that dying mesothelioma patients would be fairly compensated during their shortened life span. The detailed letter was sent to all 100 U.S. Senators.
“We are disappointed that our suggestions were ignored,” said Dr. Harvey Pass, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at New York University Medical School. “This bill presented an historic opportunity to enact legitimate reforms that would directly benefit present and future meso patients. Regrettably, the bill actually hurts more than helps meso patients.”
“The $1.1 million cap is insufficient to meet the medical, hospital, travel, lodging and other costs of mesothelioma patients who pursue the best treatments, which include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of therapies,” said Dr. Robert Cameron, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at UCLA Medical School. “The inflexible cap fails to address the ongoing medical costs of patients who survive long enough to outlive the median survival time but who remain disabled and unable to earn a living. The bill ends up discriminating against the early stage, usually younger, patients whose life- long medical costs are certain to exceed their award.
“Mesothelioma must be treated as a chronic disease that requires a lifetime of care and treatment,” said Dr. Cameron. “The costs of staying alive will far surpass the bill’s arbitrary cap. Worse, some patients may decide against expensive novel treatments to stockpile the meager ‘compensation’ for their family.”
In addition, the Alliance argues that any awards should be made while the money can be effectively invested in life-extending cures. “I doubt very much that the new bureaucracy will be up and running within my life time,” predicts Dr. Bret Williams, age 52, a two year meso survivor who has incurred over $600,000 in medical bills. “It will take at least two years for the new federal agency to start paying out claims, while the median survival for mesothelioma patients is about nine months.”
Dr. Williams, who has resolved his third-party civil claim, noted that most states have laws that allow in extremis meso patients to obtain preferential trial settings. For example, in Colorado and California, courts are required to set hardship meso cases for trial within 120 days. “I don’t buy the rhetoric that an untested, under funded and at this point non-existent federal agency will pay out fair compensation faster than the court system,” said Dr. Williams.
The Doctor-Patient Alliance has concerns that the bill will unduly restrict access to the Fund based on industry-friendly exposure criteria. “The Bill provides only for those with prolonged, occupational exposure. It excludes those with neighborhood exposure, or exposure only in schools or homes or while doing ‘shade tree mechanic’ work. It completely knocks out the first responders to the World Trade Center collapse,” said Dr. Williams.
“My family would not have been compensated under the Trust Fund, since I was exposed while doing sporadic home repairs and while working with vermiculite potting soil,” noted Dr. Williams.
“The U.S. Senate should correct these serious flaws or start over,” said Dr. Pass. “Our government must do better when it comes to federal compensation initiatives. Recent studies of similar programs, like the Black Lung fund, make me skeptical that the asbestos trust fund will work. The motives may have been noble, but every federal compensation program to date has been marred by much higher costs, more claims than predicted, serious delays in meeting the demand and long intervals between the date the bill became law and the day the government started writing checks.”
“I have a message for Dr. Frist,” said Dr. Williams. “We belong to a privileged profession. Years ago, we dedicated ourselves to healing the sick, to caring for people from all occupations. It’s been said that politics is ‘medicine on a grand scale.’ The principles guiding patient care should inform your decisions today. Let’s ban asbestos. Let’s fund research on effective treatments to stave off the asbestos health crisis. But let’s not bail out industry at the expense of victims. Dr. Frist, do no harm.”
For more information, see http://www.drpatientalliance.org.
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