The proposal effectively would prevent manufacturers from being sued for the vaccines' effects.
BY BOB EVANS
December 22, 2005
WASHINGTON, D.C.: VACCINE PROPOSAL -- Three groups representing veterans and their families are protesting a plan that protects vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits brought by civilians and members of the armed forces.
In an open letter to President Bush and Congress, the groups said, "subjecting service members to dangerous vaccines while giving protection to vaccine manufacturers is not only a threat to the health of our troops, it is a threat to the ability of our armed services to recruit and keep soldiers."
The groups noted that the legislation strips veterans and civilians of their ability to sue for damages if the vaccines, now experimental, are used and cause someone harm. Under the terms of the bill, the government would compensate victims but the specifics of how that would work and the amount of money was not determined.
The proposal, tucked into a defense spending bill, passed the House early Monday and is expected to come to the Senate for a vote today or later this week.
The veterans groups' letter, and an advertisement they placed in the Congress Daily newspaper on Friday, cites statistics from a story in the Daily Press detailing how the Department of Defense withheld data on more than 20,000 hospitalizations of troops who received the controversial anthrax vaccine from 1998-2000.
The executive director of one of the veterans groups, Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center, said the newspaper's discovery of the unreported hospitalizations was a significant event in veterans' efforts to discover the truth about the harmfulness of the vaccine.
Language preventing civilians and others from suing vaccine makers responsible for drugs to fight avian flu or biological weapons was slipped into the defense bill sometime between 11 p.m. Sunday and 1 a.m. Monday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Under the provision, any lawsuit against these companies would have to include proof of "willful misconduct" when it was filed, a standard many legal experts said would be nearly impossible to meet. That means drug makers could be guilty of "reckless" or "negligent" actions and be exempt from punishment by a lawsuit.
The bill would also prevent those who were injured from getting information about the vaccine and its manufacture. Opponents say that would allow manufacturers and the government to hide information on illnesses and other problems caused by a bad vaccine.
The Senate was expected to vote on the measure late Wednesday or today. Democrats and some Republicans have vowed to oppose the measure.
The legislation funds military expenses past Dec. 31, but also creates the lawsuit ban and opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.
Frist says the legislation is necessary so that major vaccine manufacturers will participate in the development of new drugs and have confidence that there are sufficient financial rewards.
Robinson and others point out that members of the armed forces are typically the first to receive these drugs in large numbers and the most likely to be exposed to any dangers.
"The drug industry is holding the federal government hostage" by insisting on being immune from lawsuits that might enable veterans and others to get compensation for any harm these drugs cause, he says.