Sen. Kennedy can help prevent criminals from ripping off asbestos victims

Capt. Bob Bell

Louisiana’s junior U.S. Senator John Kennedy has only been in office a few months, but he already has a chance to make his mark. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will soon consider a bill that would help people – particularly veterans – struggling with asbestos-related illnesses, protect America’s businesses, and expose scam artists.

The legislation is the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act, and it would protect asbestos-related personal injury trust funds from bogus claims.

Once asbestos was found to have serious health consequences, trust funds were set up to compensate people impacted by mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other illnesses. The trust funds were financed by the assets of more than 100 companies that were bankrupted by asbestos-related lawsuits.

Unfortunately, that system is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability. Consequently, the trust funds easily ripped-off by dishonest actors who “double-dip” by filing for payments from multiple trust funds.

Some swindlers claim they worked for a number of companies at once, or file the same claim with dozens of trust funds. There’s simply no way to cross-check claims to uncover such examples fraud.

That fraud may cause the trust funds to run dry before deserving recipients receive money that is rightfully theirs. This would particularly harm veterans, many of whom worked in shipyards, on ships and in other environments where asbestos exposure was common.

The FACT Act is not tort reform and it doesn’t cap payments. In fact, it would do absolutely nothing to prevent legitimate victims of asbestos-related illnesses from collecting every penny they deserve.

It simply adds a level of transparency to the asbestos trust fund system so crooks are no longer allowed to fraudulently bring multiple claims.

As a result of the broken trust fund system, asbestos claims are on the rise, while actual cases of asbestos-related illnesses have fallen substantially in recent years. New cases of Mesothelioma, a lung cancer often associated with asbestos exposure, has dropped from about 1 in every 86,000 American in 1992 to 1 in 123,000 today.

Under the FACT Act, asbestos trust funds file quarterly claims disclosure reports that will allow judges and administrators to detect when someone tries to improperly collect money. The proposal would install a layer of transparency to the asbestos payout system without violating privacy. The FACT Act does not reveal addresses or full Social Security numbers. It utilizes the same protections court systems rely on to protect personal information.

Thwarting con artists from draining the trusts dry would be a double victory. First, it ensures trust funds can pay veterans, pipefitters, ship builders, factory workers and others who suffered from asbestos exposure the money they’re due. Second, it keeps businesses from improperly being forced to pay money into trusts for bogus payments – something that’s particularly important here in Louisiana, where jobs and economic growth remain all too scarce.

The unemployment rate in the Pelican State remains 32 percent worse than the national average, and ranks fourth-worst among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana’s economy was rated #46 in the nation in a recent Governing Magazine study. Clearly, anything Sen. Kennedy can do to prevent the state’s job-creators from funding bogus claims with money that could be used to hire more workers or increase salaries would be a step in the right direction.

In March, the House of Representatives stood up to con artists pilfering the asbestos trust funds when lawmakers approved the FACT Act. Now it’s up to Sen. Kennedy to stop swindlers from targeting our veterans and other Americans suffering from asbestos-related illnesses, as well as job-creating businesses, and pass the FACT Act through the Senate and sending it to the president’s desk.

Capt. Bob Bell is an Air Force veteran who also served 30 years as a Navy Reserve JAG legal officer. He is a Louisiana resident and former candidate for Louisiana's 6th Congressional District.