House rejects Bush plan on smallpox compensation

Measure allowed payment for health workers injured or killed by vaccination

April 01, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With recent deaths raising grave questions about the safety of smallpox vaccinations, the House rejected legislation yesterday that would allow compensation for health and emergency workers who become ill or die from the vaccine.

The measure was the latest homeland security initiative championed by President Bush to fall victim to partisan disagreement in Congress. Most Democrats opposed the Republican-written bill because they said it would have offered nurses and emergency workers only a modest benefit for taking on a major health risk.

The vote was 206-184, with 21 Republicans joining 185 Democrats in opposition to the bill. Two Democrats - Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi - joined 182 Republicans in favor of it.

The bill would have allocated up to $262,000 to a worker who suffered complications or permanent disability from a smallpox vaccine. Seeking to provide more generous benefits in case of a vaccine-related illness or death, Democratic leaders rallied their rank and file to oppose the measure.

House leaders plan to try to pass the bill again later this week, either on its own or as part of a $75 billion wartime spending bill that is likely to pass by the end of the week.

"It's more of a pothole than a roadblock," Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said of the measure's defeat.

Still, yesterday's debate highlighted sharp disagreement over the best way to compensate civilian emergency workers for the rare but potentially serious effects of the vaccine - a divide that appears to have widened with the deaths of three people who were inoculated.

The measure is seen as critical to the success of Bush's plan to initially vaccinate 500,000 volunteer civilian medical workers and eventually up to 10 million "first responders" against smallpox in case of a biological attack. The vaccination program, which began February, has stalled around the country because of the safety concerns.

As of March 21, only 25,645 had volunteered for the vaccine, including about 437 in Maryland, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"So far, the initiative is failing," said Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat and registered nurse. "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."

The Bush administration sent Congress the compensation bill two weeks ago and has been pushing for its quick passage.

"Every day we spend negotiating on this bill is a day we put our country at risk," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Three people have died of heart attacks since their vaccinations for smallpox, including a 55-year-old Salisbury nurse, a 57-year-old Florida nurse and a 55-year old National Guardsman. The CDC and the Pentagon, which has overseen the mandatory vaccination of 350,000 military personnel, say that people with heart disease, or at high risk for it, should not receive the vaccine. Seven states - Maryland is not one of them - have suspended the vaccinations.

Joined by labor unions and nursing groups, Democrats accused House Republicans of playing on fears of a smallpox attack to push through a measure that does not offer enough compensation for victims.

"They are putting an obviously controversial bill on the floor and daring us to vote against it," said. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat.

But House Republicans countered that Democrats were standing in the way of enacting a vitally needed measure to protect the nation's security.

If the measure failed, Tauzin said before the vote, "it's only because somebody on the other side doesn't think enough is ever enough, and they want to stand here quibbling about numbers when the country is at stake."

Republican leaders said Democrats were trying to use the measure's popularity to increase the size of the benefits beyond what was reasonable.

"Finally, we just said, `Forget it - if you don't like it, don't vote for it,'" a Republican leadership aide said yesterday.

The measure the House rejected yesterday would have allowed workers who were permanently disabled from smallpox vaccines - or their survivors, in the case of a death from the inoculation - to receive up to $262,100 from the government.

Employees who missed work because of complications from the vaccine could be reimbursed for lost wages, with the same $262,100 limit. Democrats favor a larger sum for lost wages, with no lifetime cap, arguing that the amount Republicans propose is too little to compensate someone who loses the ability to work in the prime of his or her life.

The Democratic proposal would give states money to cover free education and prescreening for prospective vaccine recipients, to try to prevent the inoculation of those with heightened health risks.

"Without these safeguards and assurances, workers will continue to be reluctant to risk their health and economic security" to get the smallpox vaccine, said Sherry Strother, a public health nurse in Prince George's County who represents the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The two House Republicans from Maryland - Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore - supported the measure. All six Maryland Democrats voted against it.

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