The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Congress must modernize our approach to rare vaccine injuries

Vaccines save lives. History proves that time and time again — polio, smallpox, measles, and most recently, COVID-19. In addition to reducing the number of infections, vaccines reduce the severity of symptoms if, despite immunization, someone becomes infected. While some anti-vax conspiracy theorists claim that the appearance of any infection shows that vaccines have failed, in reality, they prevent disease and lessen the blow for the few who become sick. Just as a bullet-proof vest may not always stop every type of shot fired, it still offers the best protection for most.

This is why the search for a COVID-19 vaccine was immediately undertaken at the beginning of the pandemic. Thanks to taxpayers acting as angel investors to make an enormous investment in research and development, vaccines were developed and administered less than a year after the first known cases in the United States. Throughout the process, I sought to protect taxpayer investments through broad and equitable vaccine access and fair prices, while also supporting important public health communications campaigns to reduce vaccine hesitancy.

One important ongoing way to combat such hesitancy is to ensure consumers are swiftly and fairly compensated should they suffer a rare vaccine-related injury, an injury usually caused by an error in the administration of the vaccine, rather than the vaccine itself. 

To provide such compensation, in 1986, Congress established the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), a no-fault alternative to the traditional legal system that reimburses consumers for vaccine-related injuries. While I strongly disagree with dangerous anti-vax misinformation campaigns, I believe those who suffer rare injuries associated with vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, deserve compensation for medical bills and other losses.

Unfortunately, for the few who have suffered adverse effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, fair compensation is being delayed and denied. Due to the unique circumstances in which that vaccine was approved, COVID-19 claims are being considered under a separate, inadequate process known as the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP). The CICP has far fewer consumer protections and no judicial review. It is still very slow and provides very inadequate compensation. Of the few COVID-19 claims processed by the CICP, payments have been made for only four—each less than $4,000.

To combat vaccine hesitancy and protect consumers, I introduced the Vaccine Injury Compensation Modernization Act to update the program, which has not been changed significantly during its almost 40 years of existence. Additionally, this legislation moves COVID-19 injuries into the VICP to provide much-needed relief to those, whose claims have been lingering in the CICP. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) has joined in this bipartisan effort.

With remarkable scientific advancements that have produced far more vaccines than envisioned when the VICP was founded, the case backlog has substantially increased. This is not because of an increase in the occurrence of injuries, but because of a substantial increase in immunizations. Our legislation authorizes the resources and additional judges required to review claims expeditiously, as well as reforms to provide more reasonable time for filing a claim. It streamlines the addition of future vaccines to the program, a process now too frequently delayed by bureaucratic red tape.

Compensation under the VICP accounts for medical costs, any work-loss compensation, and damages. Outrageously, after decades, the damages cap has never been increased—leaving too many consumers without sufficient protection. Our legislation would raise the cap in line with inflation and index it moving forward.

We should make every effort to educate the public on the lifesaving benefits of vaccines, but when injury does occur compensate those who’ve suffered. Congressional action to approve the Vaccine Injury Compensation Modernization Act would address both fearmongering and extend help for those who have suffered genuine injuries as they were doing their part to protect themselves and the public health.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett represents Texas’s 37th District, which includes most of Austin. He serves as ranking member on the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee.

Tags COVID-19 vaccine Lloyd Doggett Vaccine Injury Compensation Modernization Act