Smallpox Legislation Faces Uphill Battle

  • Share
  • Read Later

U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona receives a smallpox vaccine

The marriage of special interest handouts and national security legislation is back on. Last year, a measure that would have protected Eli Lilly & Co. from lawsuits involving a mercury-based preservative in many childhood vaccines was quietly attached to legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security—but a furious outcry led to its repeal two months later. Now it's been coupled to a bill that would—finally—set up a compensation program for health care workers who suffer serious side effects from smallpox vaccines. The absence of such a program is a big reason why fewer than 13,000 of the Bush administration's target of 500,000 health care and emergency workers have received the shot so far. The bill would also kick-start Bush's bioshield initiative, designed to speed the availability of new vaccines for biological threats.

So with the nation on the brink of war and possible bioterror retaliation, the bill — which is scheduled for a Senate committee vote this Wednesday, a week after the U.S. Surgeon General got his smallpox vaccination in front of news cameras in hopes of inspiring others — may founder. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg added the controversial language dealing with the preservative thimerosal -- which some parents believe can cause autism — to the smallpox vaccine bill at the behest of Majority Leader Bill Frist; it would kick all lawsuits involving thimerosal out of court and funnel claims through the preexisting, government-funded Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund (VICF). Parents protest, though, that the limit on noneconomic damages awarded from the fund is $250,000 ($350,000 if this bill passes), much less than a seriously disabled child might win in court.

Democrats, nursing union members and others were already objecting that the smallpox compensation piece of the bill, which is based on a proposal reluctantly devised by the White House earlier this month, is too restrictive: Benefits would kick in only after 5 days of missed work, lost wage reimbursement would be set at 66% and capped at $50,000, and only workers who get their shots within 120 days of when the feds publish rules implementing the legislation would be eligible. The thimerosal provision, though, has triggered a new layer of furor.

A Frist staffer said the package contains several initiatives that would help vaccine victims, such as extending the statute of limitations for filing claims with the VICF to six years. But, said a Democratic staffer, "this isn't the time or place to be giving out special interest favors."