Officials Seek Smallpox Vaccine Compensation Fund

By ROBERT PEAR
New York Times


WASHINGTON, D.C. - March 6,2003 With President Bush's smallpox vaccination program running far behind schedule, officials asked Congress today to authorize compensation for people injured by the vaccine.

Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the program would bolster defenses against "an intentional smallpox attack."

As Mr. Bush considers military action in Iraq, health officials issued explicit warnings about the potential for terrorists' using smallpox here.

"Smallpox poses a very real threat to our country and our citizens," said Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services.

State officials and unions that represent police officers, firefighters and health care workers said the absence of compensation for injury or death was a major reason for reluctance in getting the vaccine. Smallpox is highly contagious and can spread rapidly. Officials want to have teams of vaccinated people ready to respond.

In December, federal officials said they wanted 500,000 health care workers vaccinated in the first phase of a national program. The inoculations began on Jan. 24 and were supposed to be completed in 30 days. As of Tuesday, officials said, 12,404 people were vaccinated. Officials said a small number of adverse reactions had been reported.

"We want to make darn sure we're prepared," Mr. Thompson said today.

He said his department would speed vaccinations of employees at the disease-control agency and uniformed officers in the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service.

Republican members of Congress said they hoped to give quick approval to legislation like that proposed by Mr. Bush. Democrats said the proposal did not guarantee adequate compensation.

Under Mr. Bush's plan, the government would pay $262,100 for each health worker who dies or is completely disabled by the vaccine. A person less severely injured could receive up to $50,000 plus medical expenses. The same payments would be available to people injured after having contact with vaccinated workers.

The government said that it would eventually make the vaccine available to the general public, but that it was not recommending it. Those people would not be eligible for the new compensation.

Robert E. McGarrah Jr., a public health expert at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the vaccination program started disastrously because "the administration refused to listen to the concerns of patients, doctors, nurses and other health care workers."

Federal officials have said state workers' compensation programs would take care of injuries and lost wages. But Mr. McGarrah said, "Only 12 states have said they will offer coverage in the event of injury from this vaccine."

For every million people vaccinated, 1,000 may have serious reactions, 14 to 52 will suffer life-threatening complications and 1 or 2 could die, officials said.

The vaccine is made from a live virus, vaccinia, a cousin of smallpox. Recipients can accidentally transmit it to others. People with weakened immune systems have a particular risk of complications.

The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said Mr. Bush's proposal was "a vital step" to reassure that compensation would be available.

Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said that "with the threat of war looming on the horizon" Congress had to act swiftly. Mr. Gregg is chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The senior Democrat on the panel, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, welcomed the proposal, but said it fell "short of what is needed to compensate injured workers adequately."

Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the plan was "still woefully inadequate." It does not protect workers from being coerced to take the vaccine, does not require states to screen for high risk of complications and does not ensure health care for injured people, Mr. McEntee said.

 

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