Judge orders Montana Health Clinic to pay nearly $6 million over false asbestos claims

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A health clinic in a Montana town plagued by deadly asbestos contamination must pay the government nearly $6 million in fines and damages after submitting hundreds of bogus asbestos claims, a judge has ruled.

The 337 misrepresentations made patients eligible for Medicare and other benefits they should not have received. The federally funded clinic has been at the forefront of the medical response to the deadly mining pollution near Libby, Montana

The judgment against the Center for Asbestos Related Disease 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.

The BNSF – which is itself a defendant in hundreds of asbestos-related lawsuits – alleged that the center submitted claims on behalf of patients without sufficient confirmation that they suffered from an asbestos-related disease.

After a seven-person jury agreed last month, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said in a July 18 order that he was imposing a harsh sentence to prevent future wrongdoing.

Christensen said he was particularly concerned that the clinic’s top doctor, Brad Black, had diagnosed himself with an asbestos-related illness and that a nurse had given his own mother a similar diagnosis.

The judge also cited evidence at trial of the clinic’s high rates of opioid prescriptions for people who may not have had a legitimate asbestos-related diagnosis.

The clinic showed “a reckless disregard for proper medical procedure and the legal requirements of government programs,” the judge wrote.

As instructed by the law, the judge tripled the $1.1 million in damages found by the jury to nearly $3.3 million and imposed an additional $2.6 million in penalties.

The judge awarded the BNSF 25% of the proceeds, as permitted by the False Claims Act. Federal prosecutors had previously declined to intervene in the case, and no criminal charges have been brought against the clinic.

The clinic’s attorneys appealed the jury’s verdict to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday. Clinic director Tracy McNew said the facility could be forced into bankruptcy if it were forced to pay a multimillion-dollar judgment.

McNew and Black did not immediately respond to messages on Saturday seeking comment.

The verdict could also damage the clinic’s reputation and potentially undermine lawsuits by asbestos victims against the BNSF and others the courts have held responsible for the contamination that has made Libby one of the nation’s deadliest polluted sites.

The Libby area was declared a Superfund site two decades ago following media reports of miners and their families falling ill and dying from dangerous asbestos dust.

The BNSF operated a rail yard in town through which asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was transported from the nearby WR Grace Co. mine.

Health officials said at least 400 people have been killed and thousands have fallen ill from 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.

Hampering the clinic’s defense in the misrepresentation case was a decision that barred the testimony of former U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana. Baucus helped craft a provision of the Affordable Care Act that made Libby’s asbestos victims eligible for government benefits. He said the clinic was acting in accordance with this law.

Asbestos-related diseases can range from a thickening of a person’s lung cavity that can interfere with breathing, to life-threatening cancer.

Exposure to even a tiny amount of asbestos can cause lung problems, scientists say. Symptoms can take decades to develop.

Leave a Comment