BILL, Mont. — A medical clinic in a Montana town contaminated with deadly asbestos must pay the government nearly $6 million in fines and damages after filing hundreds of false claims about asbestos, a judge ruled.
337 false claims that make 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 deadly mining pollution near Libby, Montana
The ruling against the Asbestos Clinic Center was made in a federal lawsuit filed by BNSF Railway in 2019 under the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the government.
BNSF – which has been a defendant in hundreds of asbestos-related lawsuits – alleges that the center filed complaints on behalf of patients without adequate confirmation that they had an asbestos-related illness.
After a seven-person jury agreed last month, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said in the July 18 order that he would impose a severe punishment to prevent future misconduct.
Christensen said he was particularly concerned that the clinic’s celebrity doctor, Brad Black, had diagnosed herself with an asbestos-related illness and that a nurse had signed up for benefits for her own mother.
The judge also cited evidence at trial about a high rate of prescription opioids from the clinic for people who may not have been legally diagnosed with asbestos.
The clinic demonstrated “a reckless disregard for proper medical procedure and the legal requirements of government programs,” the judge wrote.
As directed by the law, the judge tripled the $1.1 million in damages awarded by the jury, to nearly $3.3 million, and imposed $2.6 million in additional fines.
The judge awarded BNSF 25% of the proceeds, as allowed under the False Claims Act. Federal prosecutors have previously refused to intervene in the case and no criminal charges have been filed against the clinic.
The clinic’s attorneys appealed the jury’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday. Clinic director Tracy McNew said the facility could go bankrupt if forced to pay a multimillion-dollar judgment.
McNew and Black did not immediately respond to messages on Saturday seeking comment.
The ruling could also damage the clinic’s reputation and potentially undermine asbestos victims’ lawsuits against BNSF and others whose courts are held accountable for the contamination that has made Libby one of the nation’s most dangerously polluted sites. BNSF operates a railway plant in the town through which asbestos-contaminated vermiculite is transported from the WR Grace Co. near.
Railroad spokeswoman Lena Kent said the clinic’s action wasted taxpayers’ money while diverting resources from those in legitimate need.
“At the heart of this trial is CARD treating hundreds of people who don’t get sick,” Kent said. “It’s a sad chapter in this story that this trial is needed to restore focus to those who are really affected and who should continue to receive 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 falling ill and dying from dangerous asbestos dust.
Health officials say at least 400 people have died and thousands have fallen ill from asbestos exposure in the Libby area.
The clinic has certified more than 3,400 people with asbestos-related illnesses and received more than $20 million in federal funding, according to court documents.
Obstructing the clinic’s defense in the case of false claims was a ruling that barred the testimony of former U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana. Baucus helped develop a provision in the Affordable Care Act that made Libby asbestos victims eligible for government benefits. He said the clinic acted in accordance with that law.
Asbestos-related illnesses can range from thickening a person’s lung cavity that can interfere with breathing to deadly cancer.
According to scientists, exposure to microscopic amounts of asbestos can also cause lung problems. Symptoms can take decades to develop.