As public health officials scramble to convince those still unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine, they often struggle with fears of possible side effects, which are rare but can occur. When they do, the federal government has programs to compensate people who suffer serious injury or death, but it can be a complicated process to navigate.
More than 200 million Americans have already received a COVID-19 vaccine, and although they have been shown to be safe and effective, as with any vaccine or drug, some people have a bad reaction.
The federal government has two separate compensation programs, and they work very differently. For now, COVID-19 vaccines are only eligible for the one who rarely pays, but that may be about to change, and advocates say the increased chances of victims getting paid more important could go a long way to allaying vaccine concerns.
“It’s really about assuring the public that we have some sort of insurance policy in place for the few cases that may arise. This program will take care of you,” said Leah Durant, a Washington lawyer, DC, which specializes in helping people overcome a vaccine injury.
The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) is essentially a vaccine tribunal that operates within the United States Federal Claims Court. It is designed to make cases faster and easier for victims to prove. It offers payments that cover medical bills, loss of income, and pain and suffering.
Sixteen vaccines are pre-approved for some known injuries, and in recent years about 75% of those who have applied have obtained settlements.
“I think the majority of people understand that waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine to be added to VICP will likely lead to a better outcome for clients,” Durant said.
This is because COVID-19 vaccines currently fall under a different program called the Injury Countermeasures Compensation Program (CICP) – an administrative program for emergencies, such as a pandemic. But records show that CICP rarely helps victims.
In its ten years of existence, CICP has only granted 29 payments out of nearly 500 closed claims. It’s just 6%. Today, at least 1,031 new cases have already been filed, citing serious injuries or deaths from COVID-19 vaccines.
But not by any of Durant’s clients; she tells them to wait.
“We have hundreds of people on our list,” Durant said. “We provide them with the information, keep their contact details and basically keep them up to date with what’s going on in the hope that at some point we can help them.”
Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the Pfizer vaccine for routine administration in children 12 and older, it may become eligible for VICP instead. But the Secretary of Health and Social Services must recommend it first.
The HHS division that runs the two programs declined to speculate on when that will happen, saying it is waiting for Congress to enact a 75-cent excise tax on the Pfizer shot, which would fund the payments.
“You have to take certain steps to implement this, but the law says it will happen. It’s just a matter of sooner rather than later,” said Peter Meyers, former director of the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic at the George Washington University Law School.
Meyers said the government should answer questions such as whether claims already filed in the CICP would be transferred to the VICP, or whether victims can opt out and reapply.
“One is far superior to the other,” Meyers said. “You have the right to a hearing. It will pay for a lawyer to represent you. You have none of these rights in the COVID compensation program.”
The HHS does not keep track of the number of existing COVID-19 claims for Pfizer vaccines, but according to the CDC, more Pfizer vaccines have been administered than Moderna and Johnson & Johnson combined.
The VICP is self-funded with 75 cents from the administration of each injection currently covered by this program; he raised over $ 4 billion.
CICP payments are funded from the HHS budget, as allocated by Congress.
“There is so much uncertainty about what they’re going to do,” Meyers said. “There are a lot of issues to sort out. “
The two lawyers say the timing is critical as the CICP is only giving victims a year to file a claim. Durant admitted that it was a bit of a gamble to wait for VICP approval.
“I think you will see a lot of cases that will be filed once that happens. The question will be how ready the system is to handle these cases,” Durant said.
She fears that adding COVID-19 vaccines to VICP will negatively impact an already existing backlog; it currently takes about two years for cases to be resolved.
There are two bills pending in Congress to add more resources, but there has been no movement on these so far. Congress is also expected to act to approve the excise tax on the Pfizer vaccine so that it can move to VICP.