Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus this week introduced legislation to recruit much-needed health specialists to communities like Libby, Mont., designated as Public Health Emergencies.
Tester and Baucus' bill aims to provide scholarships and student loan assistance to relevant specialists who pledge two years of service in these communities.
Libby, declared a Public Health Emergency in 2009, experienced years of widespread deaths and illness stemming from exposure to deadly asbestos fibers at the now defunct W.R. Grace mine. The town continues to have trouble attracting specialists to treat asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung disease.
"Senators Tester and Baucus are opening a door for healthcare specialists who would otherwise have a tough time locating to a rural community like Libby," said Dr. Brad Black, Director of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby. "The high costs of medical training can often keep these folks away from rural areas. This bill is a win-win that would encourage healthcare specialists to come and help address our community's unique challenges while also creating great new opportunities for medical professionals to help an underserved population alongside leading doctors and researchers."
The National Health Service Corps currently helps recruit health care providers to areas - commonly in rural and frontier America - that struggle to recruit a sufficient number of health professionals to meet the needs of their communities. However, scholarship and student loan repayment assistance are currently available only to primary care providers, not specialists.
"We need to do everything we can to help folks in Libby get the care they deserve," Tester said. "Encouraging health specialists to work in areas of need will build on the progress we've made and provide access to the specialized care that families affected by asbestos exposure need."
"Rural communities across Montana face challenges in recruiting and retaining healthcare professionals. For victims of asbestos poisoning in Libby, the challenge requires even more vigilance," said Baucus. "Providing Libby with consistent and reliable health care in light of the public health emergency is not just good policy, it's the right thing to do to bring justice to the community."
Under Tester and Baucus' Health Emergencies Lack Provider Specialists (HELPS) Act, specialists would have to be certified by the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary as being necessary to treat the particular health needs in the emergency area and would work alongside the primary care providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, or mental health care providers who are already participants in the National Health Service Corps.
Tester and Baucus introduced their bill the same week they introduced a resolution to designate the first week of April, 2013 as "Asbestos Awareness Week." This is the seventh year in a row the pair have introduced the resolution, which will honor the nearly 300 people from Libby who have died from asbestos-related diseases.