Lilly wins shield from autism suits

Protection may be temporary; lawmakers and White House must revisit issue next year.

By Maureen Groppe

November 20, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Eli Lilly and Co. won what may be a short-lived victory Tuesday.

The Senate narrowly upheld language in a homeland security bill that could help shield the company from damages in pending and future lawsuits for selling a mercury-based preservative put in childhood vaccines.

But in order to get enough votes to ensure final passage of the bill, Republican congressional leaders and the White House had to agree to revisit the issue in January.

Lawmakers opposed to the provision said the parties had agreed the liability protection would at least not extend to the 45 lawsuits already filed against Lilly by parents who allege their children suffered autism, a neurological disorder, from a mercury-based preservative used in many childhood vaccines until about three years ago. Lilly developed and sold the preservative, called thimerosal, for more than 40 years.

A White House spokesman said he could not comment on the specifics of the agreement but did say the White House would work with the next Congress "to address these issues and some members' concerns."

The protection was one of several items slipped into the bill that didn't become widely known until after the House approved the measure last week.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he thought the vaccine protections "had merit" but was bothered by the help for companies that reincorporated abroad.

"I just thought on balance, this was not the right thing to do," Bayh said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said he supported the provisions because making substantial changes would have delayed passage of the bill. He said he has no opinion on the merit of the liability protection.

Defenders of the provision said it's needed to make sure fear of lawsuits doesn't cause pharmaceutical companies to stop making vaccines, particularly those needed to fight bioterrorism.

No one, however, was claiming ownership of the provision.

Lilly -- which is a major GOP campaign donor, has a large lobbying presence in Washington, and connections to the White House that include CEO Sidney Taurel's appointment to the White House Homeland Security Advisory Council -- said it did not ask for the change.

Senators pointed to House Republicans, who pointed to the White House, which denied proposing it.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called on White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels -- a former Lilly executive -- to explain how the language got in the bill.

Daniels' spokeswoman said his office "had absolutely no involvement" on the issue.

Lilly spokesman Ed Sagebiel said the company was pleased with the language approved Tuesday.

"We think this legislation will help protect manufacturers from lawsuits that are either without merit or scientific evidence," he said.

Call Maureen Groppe at 1-202-906-8118.