My husband was the late Congressman Bruce F. Vento, who served for more than 24 years in the House of Representatives representing our home state of Minnesota. Bruce died from pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung caused by exposure to asbestos, on Oct. 10, 2000, just eight months after being diagnosed and despite receiving excellent medical care at the Mayo Clinic. He would be very disappointed that his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee voted to send HR 982, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act, to the floor.
Since at least the early 1900s, the lethal risks of asbestos exposure have been known — and intentionally hidden from — American workers and their families by companies of all sorts whose bottom lines were more important than the well-being and very lives of their workers.
For many years, asbestos companies have lobbied at the state and federal levels to erode the constitutional and legal rights of those workers diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancers caused by asbestos. Now they are lobbying Congress once again to delay and deny medical bill payments to those who are sick and dying.
The FACT Act is not about transparency at all. It requires the unbelievable disclosure on a public website of asbestos victims’ personal information, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, information about their finances, their children and other sensitive material that could subject them to identity theft and possible criminal mischief. The bill is completely one-sided — asbestos companies have no such “transparency” requirements.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 17-14 to pass this bill, despite bipartisan opposition, without ever hearing from the victims affected by it.
Subcommittee Chairman Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., postponed the subcommittee vote to hear testimony from asbestos victims and their families, but unfortunately that did not occur. Instead we were offered a closed-door meeting with staff only and were told we could offer written comments away from the press and the public open hearing we were promised.
The asbestos companies got their day on the Hill. How can the asbestos victims be denied the same transparency in a bill that supposedly is about transparency?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Legislative Exchange Council and Georgia Pacific — a company owned by the Koch Brothers, who are pushing this bill — claim it is needed to prevent fraud by asbestos victims when filing claims to company trusts. The asbestos company trusts were structured to enable the companies responsible for poisoning their workers to use bankruptcy reorganization to continue operating. But notably the Government Accountability Office analyzed many company trusts and found no evidence of fraud. A recent newspaper investigation of claims found 0.35 percent of “anomalies” that included clerical errors by the claims administrators of the company trust. Yet somehow asbestos victims have ripped off the system.
Some rip-off. The Rand Institute found that median payments to asbestos victims are 25 cents on the dollar, and some are as low as 1.1 percent of the claim filed. Hardly a windfall, and hardly a reason to victimize the sick and dying once again.
Many of those who would see their last four digits of their Social Security numbers revealed are veterans who served our country honorably. Surely Congress will understand the FACT Act is a violation of privacy for those who have already been victimized.
It is a move in the wrong direction to pass the FACT Act and expose sensitive, private information of victims. It is an outrage to victimize those who served our country and it is an outrage to victimize the victims of this tragic disease yet again.
The FACT Act is a solution in search of a problem and a destructive invasion of privacy for those who deserve compassion and gratitude from their country, not victimization. My husband would be saddened by his colleagues’ actions on this bill. He would say: “We can do better. And we should.”
Susan Vento is the widow of former Rep. Bruce F. Vento, D-Minn., and a member of the Asbestos Cancer Victims’ Rights Campaign.