House passes asbestos bill over veterans' objections
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 8, 2016
WASHINGTON – The Republican majority in the House passed a bill Friday that provides millions of asbestos victims’ confidential information to industry attorneys despite opposition from veterans groups.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, opens up the injury records of victims – many of them veterans -- to companies defending against asbestos-poisoning claims in separate lawsuits, and calls for publishing their medical and work histories, as well as partial Social Security numbers, on the Internet.
The White House said it will veto the bill and at least 16 national veterans groups came out strongly against it prior to the vote, warning it would allow companies to delay the claims of terminally ill veterans while exposing their sensitive personal information to identity theft. House Democrats unanimously opposed the bill and tried unsuccessfully to sink it with nine amendments.
“Folks have said the FACT Act hurts veterans. I say it helps veterans,” Farenthold said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and companies that once produced asbestos have lobbied for years to pass the legislation as new poisoning lawsuits and claims continue to be filed. The Government Accountability Office found the changes could give industry defense attorneys an advantage in court.
A similar bill has been filed in the Senate by Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona.
Veterans comprise up to 30 percent of deaths from asbestos-caused lung cancer, which can occur decades after exposure. The flame-retardant material was widely used in Navy ships and buildings until the 1980s. Companies that produced it – and sometimes hid its dangers – were forced to set up trusts over the years that have paid out at least $17.7 billion to more than 3 million victims who were sickened.
Farenthold and the chamber said the legislation would help veterans by giving the companies facing new lawsuits in civil court the information of all those victims as well as any future victims in order to root out fraudulent claims.
Those records are now widely considered to be private and not accessible by the public.
Unscrupulous victim attorneys are draining the trust accounts, leaving nothing for veterans who might become sick in the future but remain unable to sue the Defense Department over exposure, Farenthold said.
“Under sovereign immunity they have nobody to turn to but these trusts … so it is important that we have the FACT Act to preserve these trusts,” he said.
In a letter to House leaders Thursday, veteran groups called the bill an “offensive invasion of privacy to the men and women who have honorably served, and it does nothing to assure their adequate compensation or to prevent future asbestos exposures and deaths.”
It was signed by the Military Officers Association of America, American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Association of the United States Navy, Military Order of the Purple Heart and others.
Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, derided the legislation as a ploy by big business to gain an advantage in asbestos suits.
“These provisions claim to serve transparency. Indeed, the representative’s efforts to support asbestos companies and intimidate victims could not be more clear,” she said.
A sign warns of hazardous material as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manage debris removal operations in Joplin, Mo., on July 29, 2011, following a deadly tornado in May 2011. A bill passed by the House in January 2016 would hand the asbestos industry a key legal advantage when fighting the claims of terminally ill veterans, critics of the legislation say.
Mark Haviland/U.S. Army