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Controversy Erupts Over U.S. Vaccine-Liabilities Fund

Controversy Erupts Over U.S. Vaccine-Liabilities Fund

November 1, 2001 By Todd Zwillich

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - A federal program designed to compensate families for the adverse effects of vaccines has in some cases become just as contentious as the court cases it was meant to avoid, several witnesses told lawmakers Thursday.

Families of children allegedly harmed by vaccines appeared on Capitol Hill to detail their difficulties in gaining government payments for the injuries. In some cases those difficulties involved lawsuits and appeals that went on for years.

Lawmakers held the hearing to promote legislation designed to revamp the program. But federal authorities charged with administering the program and arguing disputed claims in court said that the government has appealed only a handful of claims.

Congress came up with the $1.7 billion National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVIP) fund in 1987 as a way to shield vaccine makers from lawsuits brought by injured patients. Companies at the time were threatening to quit the vaccine market, leaving open the prospect of dwindling vaccine availability.

The program is supposed to provide affected patients with an alternative to the courts. But witnesses told members of the House Government Reform Committee that they have been forced to fight the government for compensation.

"The matter is still not completely resolved after almost 11 years," said Janet Zuhlke, a Satellite Beach, Florida, woman whose 5-year-old daughter developed intermittent blindness and retardation following inoculations with a polio vaccine and with a combined diptheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccine in 1990. Zuhlke has spent over $25,000 on her daughter's care, said Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who chairs the committee.

"Not everyone has had an experience this bad. But this is not an isolated incident. You hear about these cases over and over again," Burton said.

Thomas E. Balbier, the program's director, said that the fund has paid out $1.3 billion to 1,700 families since 1987. The program usually speeds compensation for illnesses established by researchers to be connected to vaccinations--paying for medical care and compensating up to $250,000 for pain and suffering.

"The program was never intended to serve as a compensation source for a wide range of naturally occurring illnesses and conditions," Balbier said.

A Justice Department official told the committee that the government has appealed just 57 times in 5,400 cases resolved in federal court since 1987. For less common illnesses claimants must prove that an illness was caused directly by a vaccine.

"The mere fact that B follows A does not mean that A caused B," said Paul Clinton Harris, Sr., the deputy assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department's civil division.

Congress is considering a proposal that would ease the burden of proof for established illnesses, giving the "benefit of the doubt" to injured patients in close cases, said bill sponsor Rep. David Weldon (R-FL). The bill would also give families 6 years to file claims after an alleged vaccine-related event.

"The cases are so hard to prove that you've got to give the benefit of the doubt to an injured child," said Stuart Burns, a legislative aide to Rep. Weldon.

Congress is likely to address the issue some time in early 2002, Burns said.

SOURCE: House Government Reform Committee

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