LIBBY - A small army of federal bureaucrats has descended on northwest Montana, helping victims of Libby's asbestos contamination to sign up for unprecedented Medicare benefits.
"This is a new thing for Social Security," said Nancy Berryhill, the administration's regional commissioner. "No other group like this has ever been selected to receive Medicare."
Under the new national health care law, victims of Libby's asbestos are eligible for Medicare, regardless of age. Generally, Medicare is reserved only for senior citizens, or those with long-term disabilities.
The health care law contains a clause that opens Medicare to anyone diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease who stayed in Lincoln County a total of six months over a 10-year period. Even those who have never worked - and so never paid into Social Security - are eligible.
Berryhill's Denver office only learned of the special Libby benefits a month ago, and since then has been scrambling to train her Social Security employees in dealing with the unique applicants.
Her first step was to issue a nationwide alert, to all Social Security offices, advising people of the change. She then began revamping the administration's Web site, and overhauling its electronic application programs to speed the review process.
On Monday, she said, a team of nine opened the doors at a new Social Security storefront in Libby at the old downtown city hall, and saw almost 60 people before closing time. Some, she said, were able to complete the entire process before day's end.
That storefront will remain open indefinitely, as long as there is demand from the community, Berryhill said. In addition, she added three new staffers to the existing Social Security office in Kalispell, where they will be answering telephone inquiries about the new benefits.
Currently, the only way to apply for the special Medicare program is to drop by the Libby office on weekdays, or to call Kalispell toll-free at (888) 482-3128, she said. Additional information is available online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/libby/
Berryhill, who worked the Libby field office herself this week, said she has no idea how many might apply - "it could be hundreds, it could be thousands," but she is working with the local asbestos-disease clinic to access patients who likely qualify. In addition, she has plastered towns as far away as Whitefish and Eureka with pamphlets explaining the program, and has been meeting with local media outlets throughout the region.
The benefits come after years of asbestos contamination in Libby, which has left hundreds dead and many more sickened. The problems have been traced to the now-defunct W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine, which for decades unearthed the deadly asbestos alongside vermiculite. The asbestos was spread widely around Libby, as residents used vermiculite as a soil additive and home insulation.
The company - which was cleared of criminal wrongdoing last year - still faces many civil suits, and has initiated its own health insurance program to provide some care to victims.
That insurance, however, only covers asbestos-related ailments, while the new Social Security benefits are standard Medicare fare - covering all health issues for those who qualify.
"This is a full health-care package," Berryhill said, covering everything from asbestosis to flu shots to broken arms.
And generally, she said, there's no conflict between existing insurance programs and Medicare, with the federal program usually providing secondary coverage. If the Grace plan should one day be dropped, she said, the Medicare benefits would remain unchanged.
The unusual benefits were added to the national health care legislation by Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who has visited Libby many times since the tragedy there became known 10 years ago. Locals have praised the legislation, saying that while much has been spent on asbestos cleanup in town, not enough money has been provided for ongoing health care.
Berryhill said she did not know how much longterm care might cost for an average asbestos patient, saying that sort of analysis was irrelevant to her directive to help patients register for coverage.
Her storefront in Libby, and the additional staffers in Kalispell, will remain on the job as long as needed, she said, recognizing that although continued applications will be received for years, the initial months will likely prove busiest for processors.
On Monday, while about 60 people walked into the Libby office, another 50 or so called the Kalispell hot line.
"We want to make it simple and fast," she said, adding that people need only bring their Social Security number and an identification, such as a driver's license.
For those whose incomes are limited, she said, financial assistance can be available to help cover Medicare premiums, deductibles and co-payments.
"We want to get the word out," she said, "and we want to get eligible people signed up."
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324 or at email@example.com.