April 2, 2003

Lawmakers Split on Smallpox Compensation

Political News

WASHINGTON - Money has been set aside to compensate people injured or killed by the smallpox vaccination, but lawmakers are divided over the amount that each person should get.

A Senate committee approved legislation Wednesday along party lines. Democrats on the losing side of the vote promised a fight when the bill reaches the full Senate.

The bill, based on President Bush's plan, would provide $262,100 to those who are killed or totally and permanently disabled by the vaccine. People less severely injured could get up to $50,000 in lost wages, plus unpaid medical expenses.

The House defeated a nearly identical bill Monday, with some lawmakers saying the compensation was not generous enough. Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee made the same point Wednesday.

"It's a tin cup response to a major kind of health threat, and I think it insults the first responders of this country," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the panel's top Democrat.

"It's not an insult," responded Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the committee chairman. "It's a genuine attempt to solve a problem."

Many health care workers have declined to be vaccinated against smallpox, given the rare but serious side effects of the vaccine. Another fact is the virtual lack of compensation available for those injured or killed.

Gregg said his bill was a "reasonable approach" to solve the problem. "Most important," he added, "it's the only approach on the table that's moving forward."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he wanted to bring the bill before the full Senate soon. He said he had yet to figure out how to resolve the differences over how much money people should get.

Whatever the deal, Frist said, $35 million has been set aside for payments as part of a spending bill now moving through Congress.

Kennedy offered amendments that would have given the $262,100 payments to people who suffer permanent disfigurements, as well as those killed and permanently and totally disabled. In addition, his plan would not cap compensation for lost wages, would cover more medical services and would guarantee funds for the program.

His amendments failed in party-line votes.

Kennedy said the Republican bill was "heartlessly inadequate." He said he was "absolutely baffled" as to why the GOP would not go along with more generous payments, given that the total amount of money is expected to be small because not that many people will be hurt by the vaccine.

Kennedy suggested that the White House was preventing Republicans from compromising, as did House aides of both parties who were frustrated by the lack of agreement.

Only about 25,000 people have been vaccinated so far toward an initial goal of some 450,000 in the program's first phase.

"It's a disaster. It's an absolutely disaster," Kennedy said.

Gregg agreed that the numbers must grow to ensure proper preparation if smallpox is used as a bioterrorist weapon.

"People don't see the threat, which is unfortunate because the threat is clearly there," he said.