Legislation that would create a compensation fund for vaccine-injured children was approved Saturday night in the dwindling hours of the 99th Congress, but it faces an almost certain veto from President Reagan.
Administration officials, in warnings delivered to Capitol Hill in the days before Congress acted on the measure, signaled their strong opposition to the legislation.
“The bill is likely to do little to assure the vaccine supply or to improve our childhood immunization efforts,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen in a letter to outgoing House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).
Further, Bowen said: “It would establish a new compensation system without adequate data to show that such a drastic and potentially costly step is necessary.”
The legislation, part of an omnibus bill, was designed to ensure the uninterrupted supply of critical childhood vaccines. It would establish a trust fund for families of the several dozen children who annually suffer severe reactions to these vaccines, including mental retardation, disability and even death.
Because these victims receive no compensation, they have often looked for relief to the courts, which in their turn have held vaccine manufacturers responsible. And the manufacturers, confronting rising liability costs, have either raised their prices or threatened to cease making vaccines altogether.
“This bill is the first step to taking care of children hurt in the process of protecting society from epidemics, and to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), author of the measure and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health.
Skyrocketing Prices Feared
“If the President vetoes it, he will leave these children to fend for themselves and leave the country with risks or shortages, or skyrocketing prices,” Waxman said Sunday. “If he vetoes it, I hope he has some emergency plans to start making vaccines himself, because the manufacturers tell us they may very well stop.”
Assistant Atty. Gen. John R. Bolton, in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), said the Reagan Administration opposes the bill because it would establish “a major new entitlement program for which no legitimate need has been demonstrated.”
Bolton added: “While it is undisputed that there is a very small handful of children who may suffer serious adverse effects from being vaccinated, no compelling evidence has been presented that existing compensation mechanisms . . . do not provide adequate benefits to such children and their families.”
Compensation to $250,000
Parents who could demonstrate a vaccine injury would be compensated up to $250,000 but would then be prohibited from pursuing other claims in court. Presumably, since this route would be faster and less risky than a potentially lengthy court case, families would choose this option and spare manufacturers from huge jury awards.
The original bill provided for the trust fund to be financed by an excise tax levied on each dose of vaccine sold. This provision, however, required action by the House Ways and Means Committee, which failed to consider it. Therefore, it was not included in the final bill. The measure, as approved by Congress, however, “sets up the structure and is waiting for a funding mechanism,” Waxman said, adding that the excise tax “can be approved as a separate measure in the next Congress.”
The vaccine legislation was part of an omnibus bill that contained more than half a dozen other health-related items. Thus, if the President fails to sign it, he will also veto other measures, including legislation strongly supported by his political ally, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which would permit the sale of non-approved U.S. drugs overseas.