Presidential Candidates Criticize Each Other on Issue of U.S. Flu Vaccine Shortage
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) on Monday "accused President Bush of a dangerous indifference to the country's health care concerns," saying that the flu vaccine shortage is a "symbol of the broader problems of uninsured families and high-priced prescription drugs," the New York Times reports (Wilgoren, New York Times, 10/19).
Appearing over the past two days in four cities in Florida, where "flu politics could have a particular impact" given the state's large elderly population, Kerry sought to move the Bush administration's handling of the nation's flu vaccines to "center stage," USA Today reports. According to USA Today, Kerry has "been making the case" -- through jokes, a new TV ad and a new proposed plan to address the vaccine shortage -- that "botching something like flu shots is a strong signal that you're not in touch with people's lives" (Lawrence, USA Today, 10/19).
Kerry, speaking to supporters in Tampa, said, "Ladies and gentlemen, here's the Bush health care plan: Don't get a flu shot. Don't import less expensive drugs, don't negotiate for lower prices and, most of all, don't get sick. There's only one way to avoid another four years of hearing 'don't' from this president when it comes to health care: Don't vote for George W. Bush." Kerry, referring to a New Jersey city that is using a lottery to dole out flu shots, added, "When I'm president, you will not have to win the lottery to get health care" (Wilgoren, New York Times, 10/19).
Kerry in West Palm Beach on Monday, noting that Bush had recently talked to seniors about prayer and flu shots, said, "And that's the way it works. Under his plan, you don't have a prayer of getting a flu shot" (Lawrence, USA Today, 10/19). Referring to the company where Vice President Dick Cheney served as CEO, Kerry said, "You know, if Halliburton made flu vaccines, you'd have more flu shots here in Florida than you do oranges" (Hurt, Washington Times, 10/19).
Kerry on Monday "unveiled what his campaign called a 'plan to address the flu vaccine crisis,'" intensifying the "increasingly febrile politics of the flu," CongressDaily reports. According to CongressDaily, Kerry's plan includes "crack[ing] down" on price gouging; mandatory reporting of vaccine supplies; increasing the national stockpile of all antiviral drugs; encouraging vaccine donations from companies whose employees are at a low risk of developing the flu; and providing HHS with resources to purchase unused vaccine doses that are not donated.
Under Kerry's plan, the federal government would create a "strategic vaccine reserve" by guaranteeing the purchases of unused vaccines and would give manufacturers "incentives" to enter the vaccine market (Koffler, CongressDaily, 10/18). Kerry said that he would make these steps "priorities" if he is elected, the AP/Wall Street Journal reports (AP/Wall Street Journal, 10/19).
Cheney told supporters at a restaurant in West Virginia that the flu vaccine shortage is because of "the threat of lawsuits, the yearlong efficacy of flu vaccines and limited company profits," the AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports (Bundy, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 10/19). In response to a physician's question on the shortage, Cheney said, "The problem we have run into, producing vaccine is not a very profitable business. It's a combination of the economics of the business. They produced millions of doses, but if people don't take it, they have to throw it out" (AP/Wall Street Journal, 10/19).
Cheney added that "[t]he other problem is liability concerns," and he noted Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) voted against a bill in 2003 that would have capped noneconomic damages in liability cases. "Given John Edwards' background and John Kerry's voting record, there is not going to be serious medical liability reform as long as the two of them are in business" (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 10/19). The bill Cheney referred to would have capped noneconomic damages in all liability cases at $250,000 and would have included protection for vaccine makers whose products have received FDA approval.
Sarah Bianchi of the Kerry campaign said that Kerry voted against the bill because be opposed the level of the cap. "They're trying to yet again make excuses for what is clearly a failure on the part of this administration," Bianchi said (AP/Wall Street Journal, 10/19).
Bush administration representatives and campaign officials "dismissed [Kerry's] attack as a scare tactic" and reiterated Cheney's criticism of the Democratic ticket's votes against the liability bill, the Washington Times reports (Washington Times, 10/19). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson "struck back" at Kerry during a news conference in Tampa, the New York Times reports. "You can scare people and make them stand in line by scaring them. Or we can work together. It's a demonstration of a difference in leadership," Thompson said.
Bush campaign spokesperson Steve Schmidt added that Kerry's opposition to the liability bill had been "an obstacle to flu vaccine production." Schmidt also noted that the Bush administration has increased spending on flu preparedness from $39 million in 2001 to $283 million in 2004 (Wilgoren, New York Times, 10/19). "As John Kerry loses momentum and slips in the polls, he's grasping at issues in the headlines and makes a series of false and baseless attacks," Schmidt said (Rosenbaum/Halbfinger, New York Times, 10/19).
Scott Reed, who worked on former Sen. Bob Dole's (R) 1996 presidential campaign, said Kerry's statements will not sway voters because seniors "are going to recognize that this is not a decision that sits on the president's desk" (Lawrence, USA Today, 10/19). A USA Today examination of elderly voters in Ohio appears to support Reed's assertions.
According to USA Today, "senior citizens interviewed [in Ohio] did not hold any politician accountable for a sudden problem that has been thrust into their lives just before the Nov. 2 election" (Cauchon, USA Today, 10/19). According to the New York Times, "experts say Congress is as much to blame [for the vaccine shortage] as the president for allowing domestic manufacturers to stop production." The Times reports that Kerry during his Senate career, "apparently never addressed the matter, either."
The Times also notes that vaccine makers' "fears of lawsuits" is "not a main reason to halt production because a law already offers government protection against such liability." According to a January 2003 report by HHS' National Vaccine Advisory Committee, "Current vaccine shortages do not appear to be liability related." However, the report, which was referenced on Monday by the Kerry campaign, also noted, "Today, litigation again threatens stability of the vaccine program in the form of class-action lawsuits" (Rosenbaum/Halbfinger, New York Times, 10/19).
USA Today on Monday looked at the "very different plans" proposed by Bush and Kerry, either of which "could dramatically change how millions of Americans get health insurance." According to USA Today, "Kerry actually is offering the more conservative of the two proposals -- in concept, if not in dollars," while Bush "would steer the nation's health care system in a different direction" (Welch, USA Today, 10/19).
Several broadcast programs reported on the role of the flu vaccine shortage in the presidential election:
- CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports": The segment includes comments from CDC Director Julie Gerberding and Kerry (Cohen, "Wolf Blitzer Reports," CNN, 10/18). The complete transcript is available online.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr reports that although the shortage of flu vaccine has become a political issue, the "real blame" for the shortage might be the U.S. method of allowing the free market to dictate the availability of vaccine (Schorr, "All Things Considered," 10/18). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Kevin Keane, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs; Kerry; and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) (Rovner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/18). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Bush, Keane and Jim Young of FluMist-maker MedImmune, as well as excerpts of Kerry campaign advertisements criticizing Bush for the flu vaccine shortage (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 10/19). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.