Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) will sponsor legislation to remove one of the barriers to President Bush's smallpox vaccination plan by providing a no-fault compensation package to front-line healthcare workers injured by the vaccine.
The plan was introduced by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson on Wednesday and detailed in a press conference Thursday with Gregg and Julie Gerberding, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proposal is based on a package called the Public Safety Officers Benefit program now available to police officers and firemen and administered by the Department of Justice.
In December, Bush announced his plan to vaccinate 500,000 medical personnel and members of emergency response teams. But as of March 4, just 12,404 individuals in 46 jurisdictions had received the vaccine. Many hospitals and health workers have refused to administer or take the vaccine because the government has offered no compensation to those who have adverse reactions to the shot.
The existing vaccine carries a risk of death for 1 or 2 of every million vaccinated and of potentially life-threatening reactions for 14 to 52 of every million.
The HHS proposal would create a benefit of $262,100 for death and permanent disability, and a maximum of $50,000 for two-thirds of lost wages after the fifth day from work, as well as "reasonable" out-of-pocket medical expenses. The benefits would be retroactive to cover those who already have been vaccinated under the program.
HHS also would provide compensation to third parties that contract vaccinia from any of the vaccinated response team members. Vaccinia is the live virus, related to the smallpox virus, that is used in the current smallpox vaccine. It can have serious side effects for certain people with compromised immune systems.
"With the threat of war looming on the horizon this bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the United States today," says Gregg, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "This isn't a health issue or a legal issue. It's a vital national security issue."
Gregg says he will work with Congressional leaders of both parties, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking minority member on the HELP committee, to pass the bill as soon as possible. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has introduced a more generous package, HR 865, in the House.
"Health professionals deserve the same peace of mind that our public safety workers receive," says Senate majority leader Bill Frist, M.D., (R-Tenn.). "I commend HHS for its work to balance the concerns of our first responders with the need for fair and just compensation in the event of injury or death."
Leaders of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials call the HHS compensation proposal "an important step forward."