Capps Joins First Responders to Call for Fair Smallpox Vaccine Bill

For Immediate Release:

March 31, 2003

Contact:Brigid O’Brien
202-226-7747

WASHINGTON – In an effort to bolster the lagging smallpox vaccination among nurses and other first responders, Congresswoman Lois Capps today joined senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to call for swift passage of a fair and adequate smallpox vaccine compensation package.

In order to ensure U.S. readiness to handle a bioterrorist attack, the Department of Health and Human Services originally intended to vaccinate 500,000 health care workers and first responders by March 1. So far, however, only about twenty-five thousand vaccinations have been administered.

The smallpox vaccine causes rare but serious side effects, including death.   The Institute of Medicine has reported that one major reason for the slow start of the vaccination program is the lack of compensation for medical expenses and lost wages for those who sustain injuries from the vaccine.  Health care workers and other first responders have been reluctant to accept the vaccine in the absence of such assurance of compensation, given their responsibilities to their families.

Capps, a registered nurse, spoke to the failures of the bill that will be considered by the House floor today. The main points of contention with the Republican measure were it’s inadequate lost wage compensation and funding provisions.

The Republican bill would impose a lifetime cap of $262,000 for an injured worker’s lost wages.  The Capps/Waxman alternative would pay up to $75,000 per year in lost wages for as long as the worker is disabled.

In addition, the Republican bill does not guarantee that adequate funding is available to compensate health care workers and other first responders injured by the smallpox vaccine.   The Capps/Waxman alternative provides for mandatory funding for this program.

Joined today by senior Energy and Commerce Committee Members Henry Waxman and Sherrod Brown; Kathy Hall, Executive Director of the Maryland Nurses Association (reprensenting the American Nurses Assocaition); Pat Greenberg, Director of the New York State Nurses Alliance (representing SEIU); and Sherry Strother, a public health nurse from Maryland (representing AFSCME), Congresswoman Capps delivered the following statement:

“Today the House will take up legislation addressing the matter of smallpox vaccine compensation.

“Let me just start out by saying that during the past week some serious concerns have been raised about the safety of this vaccine.   I think these incidents speak even more forcefully to the need for more research and information about the small pox vaccine. 

“But if the Administration insists that America's nurses, fire fighters, and other first responders must be vaccinated against this disease, then now more than ever, it is critical that we provide the peace of mind they need.   Our first responders must know that in the event of an adverse or even fatal reaction, their needs and the needs of their families will be taken care of.

“The overall goal is to make sure we are prepared for a possible outbreak of smallpox as part of a terrorist attack.  But so far, this initiative is failing.  These medical and public safety professionals know the risks of the disease and the vaccine very well.  And few have been willing to take it.

“Understandably, they want to know that they and their loved ones will be taken care of in case something goes wrong.   It is not a lot to ask, but they do not have that assurance now. Recent tragic cases show that their concerns are not unfounded.

“The bottom line remains that we must pass a fair compensation plan in order to make the smallpox vaccine program work.   That is the goal of everyone here today.   The Institute of Medicine has reported that the absence of such a plan is a major barrier to an effective vaccine program. 

“But the bill that is on the floor today will not give nurses, fire fighters, or other first responders the assurances they need to be vaccinated.   It imposes unfair caps on lost wage reimbursements.  It does not guarantee that the promises in the bill will be funded.  And it will not work.  

“The nursing community is here today to tell us what will work. The House should listen to them.   The House should reject this bill.  We should pass legislation that Rep. Waxman and I have crafted with our colleagues and with input from the first responders. 

“The President wants our first responders to be prepared for smallpox.   We want to help.  But this bill and efforts to block alternatives are simply making our nurses, fire fighters, and other first responders more uncomfortable.  It makes our first responders beg for help.  It nickel and dimes the people who will care for us in an emergency.

“We have been told what we need to do.   We have legislation that does it.  We should reject the bill on the floor and pass a bill that will make the smallpox vaccine program work.

“We must do this to support our first responders and protect America from the threat of smallpox.”