WASHINGTON — A bill opposed by veterans groups that affects people poisoned by asbestos triggered strong debate Wednesday during a first hearing in the Senate.
Republican senators, including sponsor Jeff Flake of Arizona, argued the bill will ferret out fraudulent compensation claims by veterans with asbestos illnesses. But Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and other Democrats said it was a giveaway to companies fighting lawsuits over the dangerous building material, which causes lung damage and cancer.
The legislation, called the FACT Act, passed the House last month entirely on Republican votes and is now opposed by 17 national veterans groups, including Military Officers Association of America, AMVETS and Vietnam Veterans of America. It requires the confidential information of hundreds of thousands of victims — as many as 30 percent of them veterans — be made publicly available for the first time.
The groups wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating the FACT Act is “a cynical ploy by the asbestos industry to avoid compensating its victims who are seeking justice in court.”
Flake said there is evidence of widespread fraud among the asbestos claimants that has been compared to Enron, a $70-billion energy company that collapsed in scandal in 2001, and that his bill is needed to shed light on the wrongdoing.
“The only way to be sure is to bring transparency to the trust system,” Flake said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Dozens of trusts holding about $18 billion have been set up throughout the country by manufacturers of asbestos to compensate victims, who are coming forward in high numbers now because exposure to the substance causes disease decades later. About 10,000-15,000 people die every year from asbestos-related illnesses.
“With this amount of money at stake you’d think there would be some level of oversight but there isn’t,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the committee.
At the same time, other companies who have not paid into the trusts are fighting new civil lawsuits from victims. The bill would provide the companies a database of the trust claims and victims to use in their defense in court.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and companies that once produced asbestos have lobbied for years to pass the legislation amid a wave of poisoning suits. The Government Accountability Office found the changes could give industry defense attorneys a legal advantage.
Veterans who received compensation from an asbestos trust could have their work histories, compensation amount and partial Social Security numbers posted in bulk on a court’s public docket, which Durbin said could be a boon to identity thieves.
“You want the victims to disclose all of their information and waive their privacy. You think that is the answer?” Durbin asked bill supporters.
He said the bill also would enable companies to drag out civil lawsuits, a criticism also made by the veterans groups.
“Sadly, we know what happens when these cases are dragged out,” Durbin said. “Victims are not alive to see the result.”