Bill Would Force Out Autism Lawsuits 
      April 8, 2003 09:49 PM EDT 

      WASHINGTON - More than 200 lawsuits that claim a link between childhood vaccines and autism would be forced out of court under legislation set for action in the Senate.

      Instead, claimants would have to seek compensation through a special federal fund established to consider vaccine injury claims.

      Backers of the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, say these cases always had been supposed to go to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, but a loophole allowed families to skirt the system and press their claims in court.

      The issue became contentious late last year, when Republicans quietly slipped the change at the last minute into homeland security legislation. Under pressure, lawmakers undid the move in subsequent legislation, but vowed to try again using standard procedures.

      The measure is to be considered Wednesday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Democrats led by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., tried to reach an agreement with Frist, R-Tenn., but had not found agreement as of late Tuesday.

      Childhood vaccines are safe for the almost all children who receive them, but a small number are injured each year. Under current law, injured families must file claims first with the compensation fund, where cases are independently evaluated, before going to court. Average awards are just under $1 million.

      If someone's claim is denied, or if the monetary award is considered unsatisfactory, a lawsuit can be filed in federal or state courts.

      Some families have found a way to skip the compensation fund and go directly to court by claiming their children are harmed by a vaccine's ingredients, rather than by the vaccine itself.

      Specifically, many contend their children's autism is caused by a preservative called thimerosal, which contains mercury and once was used in the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

      The Institute of Medicine, which gives expert advice to Congress, reviewed the issue and in 2001 said it found no proof that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine or by thimerosal. The report did say a link between thimerosal and an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders is medically plausible.

      In any case, Frist, a physician, argues that these cases should have gone through the compensation fund first, like other vaccine-related claims. He blames trial lawyers for exploiting a loophole in the law and says his bill would help stem "out-of-control lawsuits."

      He noted that there are only two vaccine manufacturers in the United States and just four worldwide because vaccines produce so little profit. The threat of lawsuits will drive even more companies out of the business, he argued.

      "That exposure over time simply drives off any prudent manufacturer," he said.

      Last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, the committee's top Democrat, derided the bill for nullifying families' court cases overnight.

      "Whether you believe these claims have merit or not, this massive pre-emption of the states and the rights of families who believe their children were injured by vaccines cannot be justified without giving them adequate alternatives," he said in a statement last week.

      Congressional aides had been hopeful for agreement before the bill is considered in committee.

      "There's been a good-faith effort to find common ground on this issue, but the bottom line is, children and their families need to come first," Dodd said in a statement Tuesday. "We've made great progress, but we still have a ways to go."

      A Republican aide, describing the bill, said it would improve the fund for families filing claims in several ways. He said it would increase maximum amounts available for pain and suffering from $250,000 to $350,000, would increase the statute of limitations for filing claims from three years to six years after the onset of the injury and for the first time would allow parents to file independent claims based on their children's suffering.

      One issue that had yet to be resolved was whether families that have lost in court on technical grounds could go into the fund. Dodd was pushing for a one-year amnesty that would allow all families to file compensation claims.

      The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is financed by a 75-cent fee on each childhood vaccine administered.


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