By Doug Donovan
AFTER A VACCINATION FOR measles, mumps and rubella left his daughter brain damaged in 1995, Jeffrey Childers received an award from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a federal fund created to assist people injured from vaccinations. Childers, an Annandale, Va. auto mechanic, got $1 million up front plus $18,000 a month to care for his daughter for as long as she lives. Still, he's bitter. For more than three years his medical bills piled up as Department of Justice lawyers and a team of medical experts tried to disprove his case. "They drag this out in hopes that the child passes away," says Childers. "That way they only have to pay $250,000"--the amount mandated for vaccine-related deaths.
It's not only parents of injured children who are upset with the program, put into place in a 1986 enactment. The vaccine manufacturers say that the 75-cent-a-dose vaccine tax that finances the program is three times too high. Indeed, the U.S. General Accounting Office notes that the program's swollen $1.5 billion trust fund earns more in interest every year than the $50 million it pays in claims. Congress expected most claims to be completed within two years, but the GAO says only 19% of the cases are disposed of that quickly.
And then there are the trial lawyers, who are not exactly thrilled with the crumbs they get from this compensation system. The law requires anyone who wants to sue the manufacturer of a vaccine for one of the 11 covered diseases to wait until after the federal government has adjudicated the claim. Lawyers representing claimants get paid whether a claim is successful or not, but they get closely monitored hourly rates--not the jackpots they occasionally win when they sue, say, tobacco or tire companies.
After federal administrative judges have handed down a verdict, the claimant can reject it and go to court. But that doesn't happen very often. The number of lawsuits filed against manufacturers of one kind of vaccine, against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, dropped from 255 in 1986 to 4 in 1997.
Since 1988 the federal vaccine trust fund has paid out $315 million to 1,445 claimants, an average of $217,000 apiece. Another 3,372 claimants got zilch: The federal adjudicators ruled that vaccines were not to blame for their ailments. No doubt this crowd, too, would hoot down the program if they got a chance.
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