COVID vaccine injury group sees bipartisan interest in reforming compensation programs

Dozens of meetings with lawmakers and staff to discuss problems with Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, React19 leader says. U.S. is behind several countries that take COVID vaccine injury seriously.

Updated: November 2, 2022 - 10:47am

The U.S. has been an international outlier on COVID-19 response when it comes to prolonged school closures, one-size-fits-all vaccination regardless of risk level, and mask and vaccine mandates in schools, private businesses and governments.

But some activists think they have a decent shot at bringing the U.S. more in line with other countries on another major divergence.

React19 leaders have met with dozens of bipartisan lawmakers or their staff in recent months to discuss making the federal compensation systems for vaccine injury friendlier to victims of COVID vaccines, Director of Legal Affairs Chris Dreisbach told Just the News.

The patient advocacy nonprofit, which runs its own privately funded compensation fund for COVID vaccine injuries, is expecting draft legislation from Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) by the end of the year, according to Dreisbach. He said he recently had a second meeting with a Casey staffer.

Casey's office didn't respond to queries from Just the News about the timeline or content of the legislation.

About 7,400 claims have been filed for COVID vaccine injury as of Oct. 1 under the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, which covers pandemic-related products, according to federal data. No damages have been paid.

The British Medical Journal featured Dreisbach, who developed "debilitating neurological symptoms" following his Pfizer vaccination, in a spring investigation of complaints about CICP. It contrasted the U.S. system with Thailand's payment of $50 million to settle more than 14,000 COVID vaccine injury claims.

Case Western Reserve University law professor Katharine Van Tassel went so far as accusing CICP of structural racism because most essential workers subject to vaccine mandates "were individuals with low income, people of colour, your most vulnerable populations."

React19's materials for lawmakers emphasize they "acknowledge the COVID vaccines have played a role in quelling the severity of the pandemic," but existing injury compensation programs "are broken, time is running out for those suffering and help is needed promptly." They contrast U.S. efforts with those of Thailand, Taiwan, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada and Japan. 

The Press Trust of India reported in September that an Indian court ordered the country's National Disaster Management Authority to set up a program within three months to identify deaths "due to the after-effects of COVID-19 vaccination" and compensate the victims' dependents.

Dreisbach told Just the News that 20 vaccine-injured individuals have participated in lawmaker meetings led by React19 cofounders Brianne Dressen and Joel Wallskog, treasurer Suzanna Newell and himself.

Beyond Casey, they've met with the offices of Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) Tammy Baldwin (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

On the House side: Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), Ronnie Jackson (R-Texas), Louis Frankel (D-Fla.), Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.), John Curtis (R-Utah), Blake Moore (R-Utah), Burgess Owens (R-Utah), Steve Scalise (R-La.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), Tracey Mann (R-Kan.), Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

One of the discussed options is moving COVID vaccines into the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which covers routinely administered vaccines. VICP is still directing COVID claims into CICP, despite the vaccines' addition to the routine immunization schedules for adults and children last month.

The Congressional Research Service called CICP "somewhat more limited" in options in a comparison of the two programs last year.

VICP provides a three-year window from "the first symptom or significant aggravation of the injury" to file injury claims. Death claims must be filed within two years, with the first symptom or significant aggravation within four years of death. They are handled in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. 

CICP claims, by contrast, are resolved administratively with no option for judicial review, compensation is limited to deaths or "serious physical injuries," and they must be filed within a year of immunization. It also rules out attorney's fees and pain-and-suffering damages. 

Lawyers have told Just the News these conditions make it challenging for them to take CICP cases. Its evidence standard, which requires the injury to be a "direct result" of the vaccination based on "compelling, reliable, valid, medical and scientific evidence" beyond "mere temporal association," is "virtually unattainable," mRNA vaccine pioneer Robert Malone wrote this spring, laying out his gripes with CICP. 

Medical causation is "almost impossible to prove" without expensive expert opinion and lawyers, and the one-year window from immunization precludes injuries that take longer to manifest, Dreisbach said. Under the CICP standard, "you couldn't prove" the reality of long COVID.

Congress hasn't been completely idle on reforming the vaccine injury compensation funds. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill (HR 3655) in September to increase the maximum VICP compensation to $600,000 from the current $250,000, extend the symptom-onset window to 5 years, and require the CDC to update the vaccine injury table within 6 months of recommending a vaccine for "routine administration," down from two years. 

While VICP was "failing before COVID," the legislation won't help his community unless COVID vaccines are moved into the program and especially made retroactive for compensation purposes, Dreisbach said. 

The Department of Health and Human Services arguably has the authority to do this without Congress, he said.

HHS didn't respond to Just the News queries about whether Secretary Xavier Becerra believes he has this authority and whether he would move COVID vaccines into VICP.

React19 has also been in touch with FDA officials, with mixed results.

When the group brought vaccine-injured people and families of victims to D.C. in September to meet with Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Director Peter Marks, the FDA's top vaccines official, he insisted on a virtual meeting, according to TrialSiteNews, which sat in.

“All of us, we came out here, and Peter Marks could not get out of his house and meet with us," Dressen, herself a victim of a COVID vaccine trial, told the publication. 

Vaccine-injury data are "not sufficiently robust," Marks reportedly told the group in an hour-long meeting, referring to "low rates" that make it "very hard to know what you're looking at."

"FDA was not able to schedule an in-person meeting due to priorities related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response and other urgent public health issues," press officer Abby Capobianco told Just the News Nov. 2, declining to further specify. She didn't respond to the report's characterization of the virtual meeting.

Dressen told Just the News they also emailed "regularly" with FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock "about signals and the need for evaluation" when she was acting commissioner for a year.

React19 has its eye on the midterm elections next week, according to Dreisbach. If the House flips to Republicans, they expect a "drastic change" to oversight of COVID vaccines and injury compensation programs.