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Last Updated

03 Apr 2003

Source: New York Times, April 3, 2003

Compensation Plan for Smallpox Program Advances in Senate


WASHINGTON, April 2 With hospitals and health care workers around the country refusing to join the Bush administration's smallpox vaccination program, a Senate committee approved a measure today to compensate workers disabled or killed by the shots.

The vote of 11 to 10 was along party lines on the Republican-backed measure and came after the committee rejected several Democratic amendments to make the bill more generous.

Democrats vowed to fight for a more expansive benefits package once the measure reaches the Senate floor.

"It's a tin-cup response to a major kind of health threat, and it insults first responders in this country," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who offered the amendments. Mr. Kennedy called the measure "a flawed bill."

The measure is intended to encourage vaccination among health care and emergency workers who might respond to an attack using the deadly smallpox virus. With the war in Iraq raising the specter of such an attack, the chief sponsor of the measure, Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said the measure was urgently needed.

"This is not a legal issue," said Senator Gregg, chairman of the panel, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "This is not a health issue. This is a national security issue. We are at war. The passage of this legislation is vital to the safety of the American people."

Mr. Gregg noted that the bill's $262,100 lump sum death benefit was the same amount paid to police officers killed in the line of duty, and was more than the $256,000 lump sum paid to a soldier who might be killed in battle in Iraq.

But the measure is less generous than one defeated last week by the House. While both the House and Senate measures would pay $262,100 to those permanently disabled or killed from vaccination, the House bill caps compensation for lost wages at that amount. The Senate cap is $50,000.

Smallpox was eradicated two decades ago, and routine vaccination stopped in this country in 1972. But many experts believe rogue nations, including Iraq, continue to maintain illicit stocks of the smallpox virus. Last year, after months of internal debate, President Bush announced a voluntary program to inoculate as many as 439,000 doctors, nurses and emergency workers who would be the first to respond if terrorists obtain the smallpox virus and introduce it into the United States.

Mr. Kennedy said that so far, only 25,000 people had been vaccinated. That is mostly because of fears about the safety of the vaccine, which is made from a live virus that is a cousin to smallpox and can cause serious complications and even death.

Ten states have suspended vaccinations, lawmakers said. Last week, federal health officials announced that seven health care workers had developed cardiac problems after being vaccinated, and that two of them had died of heart attacks.

Calling the vaccination program "an absolute disaster," Mr. Kennedy predicted that things would not improve if the Senate bill passed intact, leading to a contentious exchange with Mr. Gregg, seated beside him.

When Mr. Kennedy described the measure as an insult to first responders, Mr. Gregg shot back: "It's not an insult. It's a genuine attempt to try to address the issue."