December 2, 2005

First responders and activists are targeting Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in their efforts to prevent a broad vaccine liability waiver from being attached to upcoming appropriations language.

Numerous activist groups are primed to lobby Specter to oppose plans by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to add language to the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations conference report that would provide pandemic flu vaccine makers with broad liability protections. The report is expected to come up for a vote by mid-December, Senate staffers said.

Specifically, the proposal would prevent manufacturers from being sued unless willful misconduct is proven. The language would also preclude the creation of a compensation fund for any injuries vaccine users may suffer. Frist has argued that the protections are necessary to ensure sufficient amounts of vaccine are produced.

Specter is seen as the key to defeating the provision because he, more than any other Republican conferee, is likely to oppose the proposal, according to groups such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents first responders. With activists expecting that all nine Democratic conferees will oppose the measure, Specter's vote would provide the majority necessary to defeat the provision, AFSCME and the activist group USAction said.

A coalition of Democrats, led by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), are also working to defeat the liability waiver. Kennedy and Dodd have argued that the provision would make people less likely to use the vaccines, including first responders. The senators have not announced which conferees they would target.

Specter's previous interest in a compensation program for first responders during a 2003 discussion about a potential smallpox threat is evidence that he could oppose Frist's proposal, AFSCME spokeswoman Barbara Coufal said. Specter, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, held a hearing in January 2003 dealing with a potential smallpox bioterrorist attack. The hearing prominently featured testimony calling for a compensation program, Coufal added.

Specter would be especially interested in the issue because of the committees he chairs, Helen Gonzales, policy director for USAction said. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the labor subcommittee, Specter would have an interest in both the effect of the proposal on first responders and the broader issue of liability protections, Gonzales added. Specter's office declined to comment for this story.