Jury finds Montana clinic submitted 337 false asbestos claims

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A federal jury ruled Wednesday that a clinic in a Montana town where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure submitted 337 false claims that allowed patients access to Medicare and other benefits they were not entitled to.

The seven-person jury found that the fraudulent claims caused more than $1 million in damages to the government.

The case focuses on the Center for Asbestos Related Diseases in Libby, Montana. In 2019, the BNSF railway company filed a lawsuit against the clinic based on the False Claims Act.

The BNSF Railway — controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate — sits in the dock in numerous lawsuits for its alleged involvement in polluting the city. In 2020, the Montana Supreme Court said the company was responsible for transporting asbestos-contaminated vermiculite through Libby from a nearby mine.

The clinic and its well-known director, Brad Black, have spearheaded campaigns to help residents. Its situation occupied the first pages in the country when it was declared that it was a site contaminated by toxic waste.

The jury's ruling exposes the clinic to additional penalties. Under the False Claims Act, the company could receive 15-25% of any money recovered by the government.

The center and its lawyers have denied making false medical claims on behalf of their patients, and argued that the diagnoses met the requirements of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which included special provisions for victims in Libby.

The clinic "was doing exactly what the law said," attorney Tim Bechtold said Wednesday during final arguments after 11 days of testimony.

The BNSF lawsuit claimed that the center submitted more than 300 false patient claims without obtaining external confirmation that they suffered from asbestos-related diseases. Another 1,369 people received federal benefits without a diagnosis, the firm added.

Black and his clinic have certified that more than 3,400 people have asbestos-related diseases, according to court records.

Asbestos-derived diseases range from thickening of the lung cavity, making it difficult to breathe, to deadly cancer. Under the 2009 federal health care law, people exposed to asbestos in the Libby area are entitled to publicly funded services such as Medicare, housekeeping, travel to health care, and disability benefits for those unable to work.

At least 400 people have died from asbestos-derived diseases in the Libby area, according to health officials. Due to the long latency period of these diseases, symptoms can take decades to appear.

Cleanup efforts began in 2000 after media reports of widespread health problems prompted a federal investigation. Years later, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the town's first public health emergency. More than $600 million has been spent removing vermiculite from thousands of properties in Libby and nearby communities.

According to scientists, exposure to asbestos, even a minuscule amount, can cause lung problems.

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