With cold weather and the holiday season now here, an estimated 168 million people will pay to get the flu vaccine this year to save themselves the trouble of being out of work for a few days. As it turns out, however, having an adverse reaction to these types of shots could cause you much more hardship than that. While it is common for mild side effects like muscle fatigue and headaches to follow a routine immunization, there are still rare but serious reports of people experiencing life threatening and potentially permanent injurious reactions to vaccinations. In 1989, the federal government created the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), a no-fault fund to pay qualifying victims who have suffered from catastrophic reactions to vaccines for their medical expenses and pain and suffering. The VICP’s fund, and its proposed direct and timely payout system, presented victims with a more convenient alternative to filing a lawsuit, while also protecting vaccine manufacturers from any risk of litigation and consequent production shortages. In its 27 years, the program has compensated almost 5,000 victims for over $3 billion in injuries, but has also received harsh criticism amid reports that the fund is too slow to deliver payouts, and too quick to reject victims’ petitions for compensation. One congressional advisor to the program described it as “a drug company stockholder’s dream, and a consumer’s worst nightmare.”
Although frivolous claims are a reasonable concern for funds like the VICP, claimants complain that the evidentiary standard to justify compensation is too difficult for even the most deserving of victims to meet—creating an obstruction to deny would-be qualifying petitioners the very redress that the fund was designed to provide. Jessica Mura, who has permanent brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair, was 21 years old when she suffered a life-altering reaction after getting a flu shot in 2006. Mura describes the VICP’s qualifying criteria a “joke,” saying that victims have to “jump through hoops [and] walk through fire” to be compensated because the fund’s administration considers petitions with an inclination to deny as many as possible—“they don’t want to give you anything,” she states. All victims seeking to qualify for fund coverage after suffering an adverse reaction to a shot must present evidence that it was the shot that caused their injury, and that there was negligence involved in its administration. While the former is to be expected, the latter presents a particularly large evidentiary roadblock because it rules out the possibility that the victim’s reaction could have resulted from the contents of the vaccine alone. Critics of the VICP argue that if there are components of vaccines with the potential to cause catastrophic reactions for victims such as Ms. Mura, the fund’s risk-averting suppression of lawsuits only does vaccine producers a favor by also suppressing any responsibility on their part to identify and remove these potentially noxious ingredients from their products.
The VICP’s status as a publicly funded program has only exposed it to further criticism from opponents, who say it only further reduces incentive for vaccine companies to acknowledge the contents of their shots as a potential cause of VICP petitioners’ devastating physical reactions. Ironically, vaccine manufacturers do not contribute to the fund at all. Rather, any paying recipients of shots—including those who may be affected and filing claims later—are the primary contributors to the fund, through a system whereby 75 cents of every fee paid for a shot is transferred into the fund.
Federal surveys taken of the VICP suggest complacency on the part of the program regarding the timeliness of processing claims and releasing compensatory payments. While the program cited an eight month-long window from the time of claim filing to payout for qualifying patients, a federal audit conducted in 2014 showed that more than half of cases processed by the VICP take longer than five years to conclude, leaving many petitioners wondering if receiving compensation through the fund is really the convenient alternative to litigation that it was promised to be. In the case of Ms. Mura, mentioned above, it took seven years for VICP to provide compensation for her vaccine-related injuries.
Looking forward, if the VICP fund is to act as an immunizer for the responsibility of vaccine producers, it seems fitting that recipients of shots should at least be educated beforehand about the risks and potentially damaging side effects of vaccines, as well as the fund’s purpose to help victims who suffer by them. The advisory committee overseeing the program has taken some action to make the program more “user-friendly” to victims who submit claims: in 2013, the committee submitted a request for action to increase the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering, and extend the three year-long statute of limitations for filing claims. The federal government has yet to respond to the advisory committee’s request.
Jodie Fleischer, 3B program to help vaccine victims falls short on promises, Nov 15 2016.
For any readers interested in learning more about this topic, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s website provides useful information, including answers to frequently asked questions about the VICP and steps to the process of filing a petition. Link here: https://www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/
If you would like to help the cause of victims who have suffered vaccine-related injuries, the National Vaccine Information Center (located at https://www.nvic.org/) is a charitable, nonpartisan and non-profit educational organization dedicated only to providing the public with information to make voluntary and well-informed health care choices associated with vaccines.
To donate to the National Vaccine Information Center, follow the link here: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/NVIC