BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – A health clinic in a Montana town plagued by deadly asbestos contamination must pay the government nearly $6 million in penalties and damages after it submitted hundreds of false asbestos claims, a judge has ruled.
The 337 false claims made patients eligible for Medicare and other benefits they should not have received. The federally funded clinic is at the forefront of the medical response to deadly mining pollution near Libby, Montana
The judgment against the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases clinic comes in a federal case filed by BNSF Railway in 2019 under the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the government.
BNSF – which is itself a defendant in hundreds of asbestos-related lawsuits – alleged that the center filed claims on behalf of patients without adequate certification that they had asbestosis.
After a seven-person jury agreed last month, US District Judge Dana Christensen said in a July 18 order that he was imposing a stiff sentence to deter future misconduct.
Christensen said he was particularly concerned that the clinic’s high-profile doctor, Brad Black, had diagnosed himself with asbestosis and that a nurse had given his own mother a similar diagnosis.
The judge also cited evidence at trial of high rates of opioid prescriptions from the clinic to people who may not have had a legitimate diagnosis of asbestosis.
The clinic showed “reckless disregard for proper medical procedure and the legal requirements of government programs,” the judge wrote.
As required by law, the judge tripled the $1.1 million in damages the jury found, to nearly $3.3 million, and imposed $2.6 million in additional penalties.
The judge awarded 25% of the proceeds to BNSF, as allowed under the False Claims Act. Federal prosecutors previously declined to intervene in the case, and no criminal charges were brought against the clinic.
Attorneys for the clinic appealed the jury’s verdict to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday. The clinic’s director, Tracy McNew, has said the facility could be forced into bankruptcy if forced to pay a multi-million dollar judgment.
McNew and Black did not immediately respond to messages Saturday seeking comment.
The verdict could also damage the clinic’s reputation and undermine lawsuits by asbestos victims against BNSF and others held liable by courts for contamination that turned Libby into one of the nation’s deadliest polluted sites. BNSF operated a rail yard in town that transported asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the WR Grace Co. mine. nearby.
Railroad spokeswoman Lena Kent said the clinic’s actions wasted taxpayer money and diverted resources from people in legitimate need.
“This trial focused on CARD treatment in hundreds of people who were not sick,” Kent said. “It is a sad chapter in this saga that this trial was necessary to restore the focus on those who are truly affected and who should continue to have access to the benefits and care they deserve.”
The Libby area was declared a Superfund site two decades ago after media reports that mine workers and their families were getting sick and dying from hazardous asbestos dust.
Health officials have said at least 400 people have been killed and thousands sickened by asbestos exposure in the Libby area.
The clinic has certified more than 3,400 people with asbestos-related diseases and received more than $20 million in federal funding, according to court documents.
It was a ruling that blocked the clinic’s defense of the false claims by barring testimony from former US Senator Max Baucus of Montana. Baucus helped craft a provision in the Affordable Care Act that made Libby’s asbestos victims eligible for government benefits. He said the clinic was acting in accordance with that law.
Asbestos-related diseases can range from thickening of a person’s lung cavity which can impede breathing and fatal cancer.
Exposure to even a small amount of asbestos can cause lung problems, according to scientists. The symptoms may take decades to develop.
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