You Paid for It: Investigation into flu shot injury program

BOSTON (WHDH) - Flu shots are a wintertime ritual. But a tiny number are followed by serious reactions with lifelong impacts.

And 7News found that the $3 billion fund that helps those who say they were injured by vaccines is taking too long to pay out.

Nina Kleinberg was always on the go.

“I was a downhill skier. I was a hiker. I was a bike rider,” Kleinberg said.

But a couple of years ago, her long ride ended in the most unlikely fashion.

“I got a flu shot at work,” Kleinberg recalled.

One month later, she said she suffered a one-in-a-million kind of reaction.

“I started stumbling and losing my balance,” Kleinberg said.

It was transverse myelitis, a rare disease that attacks the spinal cord.

“And I realized I couldn’t move my right leg,” Kleinberg said.

She now struggles with stairs, can’t walk or stand for very long, and was forced to scale back her work as a nurse midwife.

“Most days, it feels like I have a tight tourniquet tied around my thigh and a bunched up sock under my foot,” Kleinberg said. “Not being able to do deliveries sometimes makes me feel like a ghost.”

Kleinberg turned to the little-known National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which you fund with a 75-cent tax tacked onto most vaccines.

And Kleinberg is not alone.

“The injuries run the spectrum,” said Ron Homer, a Boston attorney who handles nothing but vaccine injury cases. “There is a huge influx of cases.”

“We represented children who have been injured by vaccines who have had a severe reaction,” Homer said. “These children, maybe for life, need 24-hour care.”

Claims of injuries by injection filed with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims have nearly tripled in just five years. Eight judges handle all of those cases. And by law, the government cannot hire any more.

At a meeting of the Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines, which helps oversee the program, last year, officials said that that’s created a “choke point” in the program, resulting in an “increasing caseload problem.” Officials noted that without the addition of more judges, “The caseload backlog will continue to increase, which will result in petitioners having to wait longer for resolution of their claims.”

“And these people, a lot of them need this compensation to take care of copays, medical bills,” Homer said.

In other words, they can’t afford to wait for the money.

Homer said delays also mean pressure to settle for less. The average payout last fiscal year was $334,000 – the lowest ever.

“We’re offered settlement awards that we feel are not adequate,” Homer said. “’What happens if I don’t take it?’ Well, we’ll get a hearing date. But it will be out a year-and-a-half to two years before a judge can hear it,” Homer said.

In December, the advisory group recommended changing the law so more judges could be hired.

But when 7News asked a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program, when it would take action, it told us, “The Health Resources and Services Administration is aware of the Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines’ recommendation. We cannot speculate on future legislation or on what actions an incoming Secretary may take.”

Kleinberg only waited one year to get a sizeable settlement.

“No one can compensate you for the loss of a limb, or for the loss of a lifestyle. But it certainly has eased the burden,” Kleinberg said.

She asked 7News not to say how much she received. But it’s helping her remodel her western Massachusetts home, to match her newly limited mobility.

She said she hopes others can get a fast dose of dollars as well.

“Obviously, I’d be in favor of making the process go quicker,” Kleinberg said.

Most vaccine injury cases, like Kleinberg’s, are settled, meaning the government denies that the vaccine actually caused the injury.

The Centers for Disease Control says vaccines are critical in fighting serious diseases, and are the safest they’ve ever been. And out of hundreds of millions of vaccines administered annually, a total of 1,120 claims were filed with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program during the last fiscal year.

“Even with my experience, I am not opposed to vaccines,” Kleinberg said.

(Copyright (c) 2017 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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