Bid to reclaim NHS asbestos costs

Lung scan showing cancer Image copyright SPL
Image caption Asbestos has been linked to diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and pleural plaques

The medical costs of treating people who suffer from diseases linked to asbestos could be reclaimed under a new bill lodged at Holyrood.

Campaigners have said NHS Scotland spends more than £20m a year diagnosing and treating people from the effects of exposure to asbestos.

The bill would allow the NHS to claw back those costs from companies who exposed their workers.

It has been lodged by SNP MSP Stuart McMillan.

The NHS has been able to recover the costs of treating the victims of accidents since 2003, where an individual made a successful claim against a third party.

However this principle does not cover diseases, and campaigners say a new law is needed to include asbestos-related conditions such as mesothelioma.

Similar legislation on asbestos was passed by the Welsh Assembly last November but has been held up by a legal question over whether the assembly has the power to enact it.

The issue is currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

Solicitors representing asbestos victims believe the same problem would not occur in Scotland, which has greater devolved powers.

Phyllis Craig, who chairs the Clydeside Action on Asbestos pressure group, called on the Scottish Parliament to address the issue "as a priority".

She said: "It is widely accepted that the number of people being diagnosed with mesothelioma continues to increase, placing an ever greater burden on the NHS and palliative care services.

"The responsibility for meeting these costs rests with the employers who exposed their employees to asbestos, contributing to the development of their illness.

"It is only just that the employers have to meet the costs of care that result from their negligence."

'Financial cost'

Alan Kirk, a surgeon and director of the group, estimated the cost for diagnosing and managing mesothelioma - a tumour on the lining of the lung - runs to about £60,000 a patient.

"If these sums can be recovered as part of the civil compensation case, funds are going back into the NHS to help to care for the Scottish population," he said.

The group is working with Mr McMillan to change the law through his Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Scotland) Bill.

The West Scotland MSP said: "The emotional and physical cost of being diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition can be significant and it's the welfare of the person with the illness that is paramount.

"However, there is a substantial financial cost to the NHS in diagnosing and managing asbestos-related conditions and this is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Mr McMillan said he expects strong resistance to the move from insurers, but it is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

Dave Moxham, deputy leader of the STUC, said: "The insurance industry has managed to avoid meeting their full responsibilities towards those with an asbestos-related disease for decades.

"It is vital that people who are undergoing investigations for suspected asbestos-related disease, or who need ongoing care and support to manage their condition, can access the health services that they need."

Overstretched funds

He added: "The NHS and palliative care services currently have to meet these costs from their own overstretched funds.

"It is time for the employers and the insurance industry to meet their obligations and reimburse the cost of the medical care as these costs would not exist if there had not been negligence on the part of the employer."

Health boards in areas with high levels of industry, such as Glasgow, would stand to gain the most if the bill becomes law.

Companies already have to repay the Department of Work and Pensions for any benefits paid as a direct result of asbestos-related illness, after an individual has won a case for civil compensation.

Thompsons Solicitors, who are acting in about 80% of asbestos cases, said the vast majority of claims would be met by insurance companies.

However, some will have to be paid by self-insured or uninsured businesses, local authorities, and health boards.

A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers said: "We are yet to see the contents of this bill and so are not in a position to comment."

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