Congress just set out on a difficult but important mission. The Senate just held its first hearing ever on the asbestos litigation crisis. As it continues to consider this issue, the lives and well being of thousands hang in the balance.
By all accounts, the hearing room was packed with business lobbyists, as a panel of attorneys argued over the merits of reforming the current system. It's no wonder that businessmen and lawyers are leading the charge. It's been reported that litigation over asbestos could cost the American economy more than $200 billion.
But they're not the ones who have the biggest stake in reforming this system. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Chairman of the committee holding the hearing, did the right thing by declaring that any solution should, first and foremost, help victims of asbestos exposure. Thankfully, Senator Leahy also pointed out that our nation's veterans are suffering from asbestos exposure
This is important because, of the thousands of victims who need help, many are America's veterans.
For decades, from before World War II through Vietnam, the United States Navy required that asbestos be installed on its ships as a fire retardant and an insulator. While the men who served on these ships served bravely against enemy forces, many never had a chance against asbestos.
Now, veterans are sick and dying from diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis, which are only caused by asbestos exposure. They need help fighting these diseases. But they're not getting much help at all.
In theory, veterans can turn to the Department of Veterans Affairs or the courts for help. Unfortunately, neither seems up to the task. The VA is bad, but the courts have failed completely.
Put simply, sick and dying victims have to wait too long for too little.
Concerned about asbestos litigation, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist convened a panel, which found that because there are so many asbestos claims, suits can take nearly twice as long to process as other liability suits. In fact, many victims actually die before there cases are completed.
His panel also found that victims often receive just 37 cents for every dollar they are awarded. The rest goes to lawyers and administrative fees.
It's a good thing Senator Leahy and the Judiciary Committee he leads are looking into this problem. Our own Senator Orrin Hatch also serves on the committee. Veterans and other victims clearly need help now. Figuring out how make this happen won't be easy, but that's what our elected representatives are supposed to do - find solutions to tough problems.
As they look for solutions, they shouldn't overlook the role the government played in causing this epidemic. Soldiers, sailors, and marines were exposed to asbestos because the government mandated its use. Of course, the government wasn't alone.
I guess in some ways, the problem isn't that tough. If you contributed to the problem, whether you're a corporation or the U.S. government, you should contribute to the solution. Everyone should pay their fair share to help those who are suffering today.