Company to pay all expenses for those who qualify

HELENA - W.R. Grace and Co. will soon begin paying medical bills and prescription drug costs for its former Libby miners, their families and any area residents within 20 miles diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, company officials said Wednesday as they launched their promised medical coverage plan.

Eligible residents can begin enrolling in the voluntary program immediately at the Grace office in Libby, which was opened in November after newspapers reported scores of deaths and even more illnesses stemming from asbestos contamination at the Maryland-based company's vermiculite mine. Grace closed the operation in 1990.

"This program is very unique," said John Forgach, Grace's senior benefits counsel, in a conference call from Maryland. "To my knowledge there is no other program like this (in the nation)."

Grace announced in January it would pay victims' medical bills - a project the company claims was in motion before Libby became the eye of a national media blitz and congressional debate. Grace won't disclose how much the program will cost.

When first presented, some Libby residents were leery of the company's offer. Alan Stringer, a former mine supervisor and current on-site official, said those worries are diminishing and he thinks townspeople will embrace the plan.

The company is quick to add that even people who have pending lawsuits against Grace are eligible for the medical coverage program. There are about 110 cases pending. Yet, people who had already received a cash award or settlement from Grace before January 2000 or who have lost a lawsuit alleging asbestos exposure aren't eligible.

Bill Corcoran, Grace vice president of public and regulatory affairs, adds that the medical criteria people must meet to become eligible for the Grace plan differ from those outlined in controversial federal legislation working its way through Congress to create a new system to deal with asbestos compensation claims.

Opponents, including many Libby residents, argue the legislation currently contains strict medical requirements that would exclude 73 percent of Libby asbestos victims, some whom have already died from related diseases.

"It's apples and oranges," Corcoran said in a conference call from Libby, later adding, "It's not intended to be restrictive, it's intended to be generous."

Grace will pay 100 percent of medical costs for people with qualifying medical conditions, which means the patient must be diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma or several nonmalignant respiratory conditions such as pleural thickening of the lung.

Residents can get a diagnosis from the doctor of their choice, not a Grace-approved physician.

Anyone who worked at the Libby mine or mill at any time, along with their spouses and legal dependents, qualifies for Grace coverage. The plan also includes people who lived or worked within a 20-mile radius of the mine or mill for at least 12 consecutive months at any time before January 2000.

Corcoran said the application is simple and easy to use.

Health Network America, a New Jersey-based insurance company, will administer the plan. Enrollees will get a medical benefits card and a prescription drug card to present to doctors and pharmacists.

Besides covering costs for asbestos-related illness, Grace will also pay for prescribed smoking deterrents. It's known that asbestos-related illnesses are worsened by tobacco use.

The cost of the medical program is unknown, but Corcoran emphasized Grace is committed to lifelong coverage regardless of price. It's also unknown how many people will qualify for the service, but Corcoran estimates between 200 and 400 people.

Grace will have better estimates after the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry completes its medical screenings of area residents.

Libby's St. John's Lutheran Hospital is helping with the chest X-rays and pulmonary-function tests, which will begin in May. Hospital officials reiterate that these initial screenings will not provide definite diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases.

Instead, the screenings are a crucial first step in letting residents know if further medical evaluations are needed, said Rick Palagi, St. John chief executive officer.

"If a person has an abnormal chest X-ray, for example, their doctor would probably need more tests before making the final diagnosis," Palagi said.

Grace has also pledged an annual $250,000 donation to the hospital to set up the medical screening program and help the facility pay for related costs.

Corcoran said Grace is offering the medical coverage plan to asbestos exposure victims because "it's the right thing to do." The actions won't affect the handful of class-action lawsuits against the company and the individual cases because Grace has already admitted it exposed its workers to asbestos, although it followed all state and federal regulations.

"We wish we knew then what we know now," Corcoran said. "Although we followed all the federal regulations it turns out in the end it wasn't enough."

Who will Grace cover?

W.R. Grace and Co. will pay medical bills and prescription drug costs for anyone diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness fitting the following criteria:

€ Worked at any time in the Libby mine or mill.

€ Were the spouse or legal dependent of a mine or mill worker.

€ Lived or worked within a 20-mile radius of the Libby mine or mill for at least 12 consecutive months at any time before January 2000.

€ People meeting these requirements remain eligible even if they have a pending lawsuit against Grace for alleged asbestos exposure and resulting damages. Victims aren't eligible if they have already received a settlement from Grace or lost their lawsuit.

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