The proposal, which Congress would have to approve, is based on a similar compensation package now available to police officers and firefighters injured on the job.
Under the plan, the government would pay $262,100 for each person who dies or is permanently and totally disabled by the vaccine. Those less severely injured could receive up to $50,000 plus medical expenses. The plan would retroactively cover everyone who has been vaccinated since Jan. 24, when the civilian program began.
The plan, announced by the Health and Human Services Department, would compensate the up to 10.5 million health care workers and emergency responders who are being asked to participate in the vaccination program. The fund also would cover people injured because they came into contact with a vaccinated worker.
“We are asking these health professionals to perform a vital public duty, so we are proposing to provide them the same sort of benefits that we provide our public safety officers when they are injured on the job,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement.
An existing federal compensation fund covers those injured by other vaccines, but not smallpox. People injured by the smallpox vaccine are not likely to be fully compensated for lost wages or medical expenses without a separate fund.
That partly explains the tepid early response to the federal vaccination program, according to state and local officials, unions, hospitals and health care workers.
Federal officials initially aimed to vaccinate as many as 450,000 people on special smallpox response teams in about a month. As of Tuesday, about six weeks into the program, 12,404 people had been vaccinated.
Officials are hoping the fund will increase the numbers.
“We would expect that this would provide a level of comfort to those who are concerned about the vaccine,” Jerry Hauer, the top bioterrorism official at HHS, told the Associated Press.
The nation’s largest union of health care workers agreed.
“The administration has given the smallpox program a much-needed shot in the arm,” said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 750,000 nurses and other health care workers.
But the American Nurses Association worried that the payments are not large enough and many people won’t qualify because they are sick for just a few days.
“The compensation doesn’t kick in until a person has been out five days,” Carol Cooke, spokeswoman for the nurses’ union, told the AP.
While the lack of compensation has contributed to health care workers’ reluctance to be vaccinated, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged Thursday that doubts about the seriousness of the threat of a bioterrorist attack were also a factor. Fearing that the risks of the vaccine have overshadowed the risks of the disease, he laid out the smallpox threat in stark terms.
“It is so contagious. It can spread so quickly. It is so deadly,” Thompson said. “We’re asking our health care workers to answer the call.”
“This is not a time for complacency,” added Dr. Gerberding. “Now more than ever we really need to scale up and speed up this vaccine program.”
The smallpox vaccine is made with a live virus called vaccinia, which is related to smallpox. Experts estimate that as many as 50 people out of every million vaccinated for the first time will face life-threatening complications, and one or two will die. Reactions are less common in people being revaccinated.
Officials in Florida, Minnesota and Virginia have said they are investigating a handful of cases of people who fell ill after getting the vaccine, and there have been several reactions among military personnel who were vaccinated. None of the reported reactions have been serious.
The vaccine is available to the general public, but the government does not recommend that people receive it and would not make compensation funds available if they suffer adverse reactions after being inoculated.