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LIBBY -- Most of the 870 people under a medical plan for Libby-area residents sickened by asbestos exposure have been sent letters saying they no longer have asbestos-related disease, or may not be as sick as they thought.
About 700 people received the letters this month from HNA/Triveras, administrator of a medical plan for W.R. Grace & Co., which operated a vermiculite mine here until 1990. Some health authorities blame the mine for killing 200 people and sickening one of every eight residents.
One letter informed the medical plan's participants that a review by medical experts indicated they had no asbestos-related condition. The other letter acknowledged the presence of a "condition or illness" related to asbestos exposure. Each letter summarized medical benefits available to the recipient.
"I've been cured by Grace. It's a miracle," said Bob Stickney, who had been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. "I don't know how they can say at first you have asbestos disease, and now you don't." Stickney said he has health insurance, but is unsure it will cover care for asbestos exposure.
"Grace didn't have anything to do with that audit" on which the letters were based, said Greg Euston, Grace communications officer in Maryland. He referred a call seeking comment Monday to HNA's Dr. Jay Flynn in New Jersey. HNA said Flynn was not in his office and no one else could take the call.
Cuts in health benefits include a reduction in chest X-rays, said Tanis Hernandez of Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease. The reduced coverage provides a patient with one a year.
"Grace has apparently waved their hand across Libby and said, 'You're healed,"' said LeRoy Thom, a former mine worker who was sickened by asbestos and is vice chairman of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.
He maintains the letters to residents were driven by Grace's push to trim responsibilities while the company operates under bankruptcy protection.
Grace's medical specialists use guidelines developed for people exposed to a type of asbestos different from the kind associated with the mine, said Dr. Alan Whitehouse of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease. The letters informing patients they do not have asbestosis are "nonsense," Whitehouse said.
The Libby Asbestos Medical Plan was funded by a $2.75 million court settlement between Grace and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, money earmarked to help pay for health-care needs not otherwise covered through Grace. Over the past three years, the Libby Asbestos Medical Plan has paid out more than $330,000 in benefits, Thom said.
A community group here has written Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for help in establishing a medical trust fund. The group estimates the fund eventually would need $250 million to fully cover the asbestos-related medical needs in Libby.