Senate committee backs GOP smallpox compensation plan

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Apr 3, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – A Republican proposal for compensating healthcare workers harmed by the smallpox vaccine won narrow approval from a Senate committee yesterday, over Democratic objections that the plan is not generous enough.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the bill in an 11-10, party-line vote, according to reports by the Associated Press and New York Times. The House rejected a similar bill Mar 31 on a 206-184 vote, with opponents voicing similar objections.

The Senate Republican proposal would pay a lump sum of $262,100 for those who die or suffer permanent total disability as a result of vaccination. Workers who suffer less severe complications would receive up to $50,000 for lost wages, plus reimbursement of medical costs. The measure that was rejected in the House provided for the same death benefit but would have capped wage compensation at $262,100 instead of $50,000, according to the New York Times report.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., reportedly called the Republican proposal "heartlessly inadequate." He offered amendments to extend the disability benefit to people who suffer permanent disfigurement, to remove the cap on wage compensation, to remove a 180-day vaccination deadline to be eligible for benefits, and to guarantee future funds for the program. All of these were rejected, but the AP report said Republicans agreed to try for a compromise on the 180-day deadline issue.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said passage of the proposal is "vital to the security of the American people." But Kennedy called the plan a "tin-cup response to a major kind of health threat."

After the vote, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson issued a statement praising the committee for its "quick and visionary action." "We are asking health professionals to perform a vital public duty as part of our comprehensive efforts to strengthen our public health system and protect the nation from a possible attack," he said. "Therefore, we want to provide these volunteers with the same benefits that we provide other public safety officers when they are injured on the job."

The Republican proposal, backed by the Bush administration, provides the same death benefit as is paid to police officers who are killed in the line of duty.

A compensation plan is seen as essential to increase participation in the voluntary smallpox vaccination program for healthcare and public health workers who would respond in case of a smallpox outbreak. Plans call for vaccinating up to 450,000 workers, but only about 29,000 have been vaccinated so far, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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