Like many of you, I come from a family in which someone has proudly served our country in war, so I take veterans' health and civil justice issues very seriously. On Memorial Day, we'll honor vets in our families and across the country with parades, special ceremonies and prayers in thanksgiving for their sacrifice. So it really bothers me when I see Congress and state legislatures across the country dishonor veterans by diluting their right to compensation for injuries endured while serving, or by compromising their medical privacy. Yet that's what's happening in Washington and across the country to the veterans who suffer from asbestos-induced disease such as mesothelioma. Veterans groups are just now beginning to realize the potentially lethal result, and they're getting organized in opposition.
The asbestos issue is important to veterans because although they comprise only 8% of the US population, they account for nearly 30% of all mesothelioma deaths nationally. If you served in the U.S. Navy before the mid-1970's, you were likely exposed to asbestos aboard a ship. During and after World War II, asbestos use in Navy ships and other armed forces applications greatly expanded as the asbestos manufacturing companies began producing more products and infrastructure for the U.S. Navy and the building of its ships. This caused hundreds of thousands of workers and sailors to be unknowingly exposed to dangerous asbestos dust in the cutting and manipulation of insulation products. As a result, many of those men and women contracted an asbestos-related disease decades later.
As early as the 1950's, the asbestos industry knew asbestos exposure was killing workers and their families and failed to issue warnings or proper protection. In 1994 Congress recognized the enormous damage caused by asbestos and enabled the creation of privately funded trusts, funded by the asbestos companies, for the benefit of asbestos victims now and into the future. But the asbestos industry continues to fight to minimize their liability, with the ultimate goal of avoiding accountability until the victim dies, leaving grieving families and taxpayers with astronomical medical bills, and decreasing compensation to victims.
In Congress and in state legislatures, the asbestos industry and those who generally want to limit our 7th Amendment rights are pushing bills to delay compensation or raise legal barriers to full payment. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved the so-called "Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2013," while in states such as Wisconsin, FACT Act-like bills are being enacted or considered. Veterans are waking up to the possibility that they might suffer as a result.
The FACT Act would do three things not currently required: 1) it would require the trusts to publicly disclose extensive, individual and personal claim information; 2) it would allow asbestos defendants to demand any additional information from the trusts at any time and for virtually any reason; and 3) it would apply retroactively to the initial creation of the trust, forcing the trusts to look back to every claim ever filed and paid. Under the bill, many victims could die before their case resolves.
The FACT Act violates federalism principles by overriding state tort law and state law governing the release of personally identifiable information, while hypocritically allowing defendants to maintain confidentiality. Veterans could face the public disclosure of their private work history, asbestos exposure information, the last four digits of of their Social Security numbers, and even the personal information of their children. They've done nothing to deserve their private information being splashed all over the Internet! Sadly, proposals by Reps. Bobby Scott and Hank Johnson to protect veterans' claims and their medical privacy from the FACT Act were rejected by the Republican majority. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas was the only Republican to vote with veterans by opposing the bill.
In Wisconsin, a bill similar to the FACT Act was introduced in the Wisconsin State Legislature due to pressure from asbestos companies. Wisconsin is home to a high number of asbestos-diseased vets; from 1999 to 2005, the state ranked 14th in the nation in the number of mesothelioma and asbestos-related deaths.
Wisconsin veterans' groups are up in arms about the bill. The state chapters of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion all came out in strong opposition. Nevertheless, the bill continues to proceed towards enactment, with proposals to protect veterans defeated there.
The national headquarters of these organizations are aware of the FACT Act, but haven't yet weighed in publicly to warn Congress against delaying the right to compensation or compromising medical privacy. This Memorial Day, let's honor our veterans by calling the MOPH, VFW and American Legion to urge them to oppose these bills nationwide, and let's tell Congress to keep their hands off our veterans' injury claims and privacy.