While concerns about the safety of the smallpox vaccination program grew, Congress tried to move ahead on creating a compensation program for those who may be injured or killed from an adverse reaction to the vaccine.
But strong opposition from Democrats, labor unions and health workers to legislation proposed by Republicans could stall those efforts.
During the past two weeks, at least three people have died after getting the vaccine, alarming already nervous health workers about the safety of the vaccine and causing numerous states to suspend their inoculation programs while they figure out their next steps.
It was against this backdrop that Congress considered Republican legislation that would cap lifetime compensation at $262,100 in the event of total disability from vaccine-related injuries. Compensation for families of workers killed by the vaccine also would be capped at $262,100. The House bill would cap lost wages for those with less serious injuries at $50,000 per year with a lifetime limit of $262,100. The Senate version had a lifetime limit of $50,000.
The Senate and the House approved $79 billion in spending for the war on Iraq, including funds for a smallpox compensation program.
The two leading hospital associations threw their support behind the House compensation bill as a starting point. "This legislation will help hospitals as they continue to prepare to meet the potential threat of the previously unimaginable use of biological weapons such as smallpox," Rick Pollack, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, said in a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), one of the bill's sponsors, before the House vote. The AHA represents primarily not-for-profit facilities.
In another letter to Tauzin, Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, said: "In passing this legislation, the House ... will take an important step forward in clarifying healthcare providers' liability concerns." After the House rejected its compensation bill 206-184, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a similar bill, moving it to the full Senate, where it is likely to face strong opposition, particularly from Democrats.
Democrats criticize the bill for failing to pay adequately those who are injured or killed by the vaccine. And without proper compensation, critics said, health workers will remain reluctant to volunteer for the vaccine.
"(The program) is a disaster; it's an absolute disaster," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said of the vaccination program, which has signed up only about 25,000 out of about 450,000 eligible healthcare workers.
During committee consideration, Kennedy called the Senate bill "a tin cup response to a major healthcare (crisis)."