An old U.S. Navy ship is towed to the U.K.
The first of four polluted U.S. Navy ships due to be scrapped in Britain docks at a shipyard in Hartlepool, England, Nov. 12, 2003. Reuters

A bill moving through Congress this week could mean that veterans suffering the ill-effects of asbestos die before they are able to claim compensation. The bill, introduced by Republicans, adds a new layer of bureaucracy to the system that will make it harder to claim from the federally-held compensation pot.

The new legislation, sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, will alter how information on billions of dollars in asbestos-poisoning settlements — most of it associated with U.S. Navy personnel — is handled. GOP sponsors of the bill claim it will help discover fraud, in part by publishing the names of claimants and medical histories on the Internet. It’s hoped that the new system will prevent attorneys from filing multiple awards for the same victims, which is one of the reasons the pot of money established is starting to dwindle.

“I think it is going to be both a good-government piece of legislation and it is going to preserve the assets of these trusts for veterans, who are the biggest percentage of these claims, and the general public,” said Farenthold, according to a Stars and Stripes report Monday.

Veterans make up the largest group of the more than three million asbestos-poisoning claims paid out since the 1980s when the government started regulating the flame-retardant material. Many companies that tried hard to hide the dangers of asbestos were forced to set up special trusts to pay victims. The numbers of those claiming have gone up in the past 10 years because of the long delay between exposure to asbestos and the development of lung cancer.

Some trusts reduced payments to veterans in recent years due to a reduction of the money in the accounts funded by asbestos companies. The Government Accountability Office reported that trusts have paid out $17.5 billion of the total $37 billion that they originally contained. Around 850,000 claims of the the 3.3 million total over the last 30 years were audited for fraud. The GAO found that 3,000 of those cases have been confirmed as fraud, a rate of 0.3 percent.

However, the new rules will add another layer of bureaucracy for veterans hoping to get money to cover the costs of expensive medical care. And many of those affected by use of asbestos on ships are now getting into their 70s.

“It definitely provides an advantage for the defendants … the longer you can delay the case, the less likely that that veteran is going to be able to appear in court themselves,” said Jason Johns, the national judge advocate for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veteran organization.