WASHINGTON – Bret Williams isn't used to being on the business end of a stethoscope. The 52-year-old doctor's place was on the other side, listening to the heartbeats of the rural North Carolinians who were once his patients.
Not any more, not since he learned last year that he has a crippling disease himself: malignant mesothelioma caused by asbestos (search) exposure from childhood, summer jobs and home repairs.
Nonetheless, the Hillsborough, N.C., internist is fighting a plan in Congress that would provide him and thousands of other Americans compensation from asbestos companies but bar them from suing.
Pushing the proposal is another doctor: heart surgeon and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn.
The Senate begins debate Monday on setting up a $114 billion trust fund financed by businesses and insurance companies to speed money to people with asbestos-related diseases. In exchange, victims could not take asbestos makers to court.
"The victims are being portrayed as corporations who are losing money as a result of the courts," Williams said during a recent Washington visit to lobby against the bill. "But the real victims are patients like me.
"I'd like to remind Bill Frist that he and I both think that the most important thing is to first do no harm to our patients. The legislation that is pending would serve only to shield corporations from liability for poisoning me and people like me. This bill would not help patients; it would only cause harm."
Despite a new push by Senate Republicans, asbestos sufferers like Williams allied with Democrats, lawyers and union advocates are likely to again block enactment by the closely divided Senate.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s for insulation and fireproofing. When inhaled, its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other ailments. The diseases often take decades to develop.
Most senators agree that something needs to be done for the hundreds of thousands of Americans sickened through high levels of asbestos exposure over long periods of time. Most also agree that some type of government-monitored fund would be best.
"Rest assured, without congressional action, the problem is not going away. In 2003 alone, a record 100,000 asbestos claims were filed," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah. He conceded, however, that his effort with Frist is unlikely to succeed this year.
Their proposed fund would have the ability to pay claimants quickly by demanding payments from corporate and insurance industry participants within six months of the bill's enactment.
The sickest people also would get priority if they can prove they have mesothelioma (search) or can get a doctor to testify they are terminally ill from an asbestos-related illness and have a life expectancy of less than one year.
Democrats say the bill doesn't provide enough money for victims in exchange for forever ending their rights to sue the companies they think sickened them.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the bill includes a provision "that says victims with asbestos-related lung cancer and 15 weighted years of asbestos exposure would receive only $25,000 in compensation."
"I literally cannot imagine how anybody could support legislation that says that is all they are entitled to," Daschle said.
Conservatives counter that Democrats wouldn't approve anything they proposed in an election year when they look to unions and trial lawyers for support.
"Some say - I think somewhat cynically - many of our colleagues on the other side are not going to vote for this bill because ... because two of their major constituencies are against the bill," said Hatch.
Democrats reply that Republicans are bringing up the bill only to slap at trial lawyers - who contribute largely to the Democratic Party - and please their supporters in the business and insurance industries, which rank ending asbestos lawsuits as one of their top priorities.
"As the majority leader knows from conversations I have had with him, it is unlikely this legislation will be able to move," Daschle said. "One would think that perhaps this is just another effort politically that will not have any result legislatively."
Some Republicans heavily invested in finding an asbestos solution also questioned Frist's decision to bring the bill up in April.
"I declined to join with Sen. Frist and Sen. Hatch in their substitute bill because I think it is the better practice to try to work through these problems," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Williams, for his part, calls himself lucky because most people stricken with asbestos-related diseases don't have access to the care he has. "They're just sent home to die," he said.