Children to get free vaccines Drug firms fail to stop program

August 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Over the strenuous objections of some drug companies, the federal government is establishing a new program guaranteeing free vaccines for millions of children who are poor or uninsured.

Under the program, which Congress created as part of the budget bill the president signed into law last Tuesday, the government will buy the vaccines at discounted prices from drug manufacturers and distribute them at no charge to doctors who choose to participate.

The doctors, in turn, will not charge patients for the vaccines. Though they may charge a fee for administering them, they may not turn away a child whose parents are unable to pay.

For procedural reasons having to do with Senate rules, a key appropriation for the new program had to be dropped from the budget bill and now awaits enactment when Congress reconvenes early next month.

But that provision -- making federal money available to clinics so they can hire additional staff, extend their hours of operation and identify children who need to be immunized -- has bipartisan support in Congress and is sure to be enacted when Congress returns.

Drug companies have argued that parental negligence, not the cost of vaccines, is the main reason for the nation's low immunization rate. In the past, they said, even though free vaccines were available to some children in some states, their parents did not always take them to be immunized. It is for that reason that there is bipartisan support for programs to identify children who need the shots.

The program is a scaled-down version of one proposed by President Clinton, who wanted the federal government to buy and distribute all childhood vaccines in the United States. Instead, the program will serve children who are enrolled in Medicaid and are uninsured or who get their shots at community health centers.

Nevertheless, it represents a new entitlement program for children that goes far beyond Medicaid, the federal-state program serving about half of the nation's poor people.

It will make vaccines available to children who meet certain eligibility criteria, including many whose families have too much income to qualify for Medicaid benefits. Ten million children under 18 years old have no health insurance even though, in most cases, their parents work.

"The vaccine initiative was the cornerstone of health care reform," said Isabelle Claxton, a lobbyist in the Washington office of Merck & Co., which makes vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella, among other diseases. "The administration views children's vaccine as a public utility."

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