An employer’s liability for the exposure of his workforce to asbestos and the payment of mesothelioma compensation could now be extended to paying back the NHS for the medical costs of treating victims of asbestos-related diseases.

Since the introduction of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003, the NHS has been able to recover the costs of treating victims of accidents where an individual makes a successful claim against a third party. However, there is no current provision for the NHS to recover costs for treating patients who have contracted industrial diseases, such as pleural mesothelioma, the fatal and incurable cancer of the lung linings.

Reclaim costs from insurance companies

In February 2014, a Bill was first announced, which would allow health boards in Scotland to reclaim the costs from insurance companies for the care of workers with industrial diseases like mesothelioma, including the many victims of asbestos exposure in the Clyde shipyards. As the number of mesothelioma patients receiving asbestosis treatments continues to rise in Scotland, so too have costs increased.

One year on, a consultation has been announced by MSP Stuart McMillan, which will take forward “The Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Scotland) Bill as a Member’s Bill at Holyrood.

In the consultation proposal, McMillan points out that it is “easy to assume that the health impact of our industrial past is nearing an end… and “the numbers of people killed by asbestos related diseases will diminish in number to zero in the near future.”

Extension to operate as current procedures

The MP for the West Scotland region also points to the NHS as providing “immeasurable care and support to those families (who) will continue to bear the financial cost for decades to come”, adding that he “does not think that it is fair that the financial burden of providing that cost should rest solely on the taxpayer when the companies who exposed our workers to asbestos are well insured.”

The extension to paying back medical costs being proposed will operate as current procedures, which place an obligation on insurers and solicitors to notify the Compensation Recovery Unit (CRU) of personal injury compensation claims in progress. A certificate of NHS charges is also requested when the case is determined.

The relevant NHS body is informed of the case, who is then responsible for detailing the service provided. The CRU liaises with insurers to recover the calculated costs, which in turn are paid to the health body and any disputes with insurers are initially dealt with by the CRU.

Annual cost to NHS Scotland has increased

It has been estimated that the annual cost to NHS Scotland for diagnosing and treating patients from exposure to asbestos has increased to £20 million. At the same time, mesothelioma rates have steadily risen in the UK to being one of the world’s highest, with a four-fold increase just in the last thirty years.

Throughout most of the middle decades of the twentieth century, until the first ban of the mid 1980s, countless numbers of  men employed in the shipbuilding dockyards of Scotland were exposed everyday to asbestos and inhaling the deadly  fibre dust particles.

Because a period of up 50 years or more can elapse from initial exposure until the appearance of asbestosis symptoms in traditional shipbuilding regions, such as Tayside and the north-east of Scotland, a high number of mesothelioma cases continue to be reported.

Highest mesothelioma rate

Latest available figures released by the NHS show that more than 100 people living in the Tayside area were admitted to hospital in 2013 for asbestos-related diseases compared to just 74 cases each year previously. While the Dundee area saw a rise of nearly 30 per cent of asbestos-related deaths since 2007, the Clydebank area recently recorded the highest rate of mesothelioma mortality in 2012.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, 5,000 people now die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.