HELENA - Democrat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus is pressuring the Bush administration to back funding for an asbestos-related disease clinic in Libby and change Medicare rules to ensure those sickened by asbestos get federal aid for their medical bills.

A Baucus aide said Tuesday that if the senator doesn't get assurances about federal funding for Libby, he'll consider blocking the nomination of key Bush appointee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Claude Allen, Bush's nominee to be deputy secretary of that agency, comes before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. Baucus is the committee's ranking Democrat.

Bill Lombardi, communications director for Baucus, said the senator has talked with Allen and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson about the importance of two major issues related to asbestosis in Libby. He wants the agency to reconsider its recent rejection of a $561,000 grant for the town's Center for Asbestos Related Diseases clinic.

Baucus is also pressuring the agency to clear up a mistake in Medicare rules that has led to the agency rejecting some claims from Libby residents. Medicare has denied coverage in some Libby cases classified as occupational-related diseases, even though the person may not have worked at the by the now-defunct W.R. Grace and Co. Zonolite mine just outside of Libby.

"This is about the health of people in Libby and getting them the health care they need," said Lombardi.

Baucus will "use whatever parliamentary procedure he needs" to make sure the concerns of Libby are addressed by the federal agency, Lombardi added. He said agency officials have been receptive so far to Baucus' concerns.

Possibly hundreds of Libby residents have been diagnosed with lung-related diseases in recent months, while dozens of others have died of asbestosis. The illnesses and deaths have been linked to tremolite asbestos released in mining operations by the Grace mine.

In his letter to Thompson, Baucus said the local clinic desperately needs federal grant money to continue operations. The center, commonly referred to as the CARD clinic, was started with $80,000 in federal funds in 1999. The clinic was essential in last year's mass screening of Libby residents for asbestos poisoning, and will be needed again this summer, Baucus said.

Its future is in question now, with failure last month to secure the $561,000, three-year federal grant.

"The clinic and the medical community are now without any firm funding for ongoing care or the means to assist in testing nearly 2,000 people waiting for asbestos-related screening," Baucus wrote. "I ask for your personal commitment in assisting me to locate immediately a source of firm funding to maintain this clinic."

On the Medicare issue, Baucus said, "because of an administrative error, folks who should qualify for Medicare are being denied."

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