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A Truly Needy Bill

October 26, 1986

For the millions of children who are saved each year by immunizations, a few are injured, crippled or killed by them. Such cases are extremely rare, largely unpredictable, and probably inevitable. Yet despite the fact that every state requires children entering school to be immunized, there is no system for compensating victims.

Some parents have sued the vaccine manufacturers, and a few of them have recovered big awards from juries. The hefty judgments, and the anticipation of more to come, have prompted vaccine manufacturers to raise prices. The cost of the DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus) vaccine, for example, has risen 500% in the past two years. Higher insurance rates have forced some manufacturers out of the market altogether. Just one company makes the vaccines for polio, measles, mumps and rubella. And still the overwhelming majority of injured children are not compensated at all.

Congress has approved a bill to cure the problem. But President Reagan, for no very good reason, is leaning toward a veto.

The legislation, passed unanimously by Congress, would establish a compensation system financed by a tax on the vaccines. Parents who demonstrated a vaccine injury could be compensated for medical expenses and pain and suffering. Parents who choose this system would forfeit their right to seek additional legal redress. The hope is that most parents would opt for the compensation system, which would be quick and certain, and reserve the legal route for the cases of genuine negligence. That way, every injured party would get a fair shake, and manufacturers would get a break from their crushing legal burden.

The President is thinking veto because, he says, the legislation would create a costly entitlement program. But the vaccine tax, which itself must be approved by Congress later, would be small, reflecting the injury incidence of a particular vaccine.

The tax on the whooping cough vaccine, for example, would add just $1.54 to its current cost of $11. And by lowering the liability of manufacturers, the compensation scheme should allow them to lower vaccine prices.

The way it is now, vaccine manufacturers are being driven out of the market, and children crippled by vaccines are being forgotten. The bill would help correct this moral and economic distortion. All it needs is the President's signature.

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