Health and Science

Compensation for victims of Covid vaccine injuries is limited

Key Points
  • So far, 21 people have filed injury claims with a federal program related to the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Shoulder injuries are the most common vaccination injury from any vaccine that people seek government compensation for.
  • HHS recently tried to roll back protection for shoulder injuries but now plans to withdraw new rules that would have made it harder to get compensated.
Compensation for rare Covid-19 vaccine injuries remains limited
Compensation for rare Covid-19 vaccine injuries remains limited

Joanna Oakley got her annual flu shot in 2015 and immediately knew something was wrong.

"It felt like it hit bone right away. And over the next few days, I noticed it was increasingly sore, and it got to where I couldn't move my arm, I couldn't turn my steering wheel in my car," she said.

As a nurse, Oakley is trained to give injections.

"It wasn't until it happened to me that I started researching, that I found, it actually did happen more often, than I would ever imagine," she said.

Nurse Joanna Oakley and her son.
Source: Joanna Oakley

Oakley says she endured three surgeries and that her arm never returned to normal. She got what is known as a shoulder injury related to vaccine administration or SIRVA.

"As a mom and a wife and as a nurse, I was more concerned with what was this injury going to do to me, as far as, you know, could I get it fixed? Would I be normal again?" she said.

Oakley is not alone. SIRVA is the most common vaccination injury that people seek government compensation for.

Twenty-one people have filed claims with the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program for adverse reactions to Covid-19 shots, according to a Freedom of Information Act response from the Department of Health and Human Services to professor Peter Meyers of George Washington Law School.

So far, there are seven reports of shoulder injuries from Covid-19 shots, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control of Prevention and doesn't verify the reports. But none of the 21 Covid-19 vaccine claims filed with the compensation program are related to shoulder injuries, according FOIA records.

Joanna Oakley experienced a serious shoulder injury for a flu vaccine.
Source: Joanna Oakley

"I've represented many clients whose lives have been upended by an unfortunate adverse reaction to a vaccination. It happens. It's rare but it happens. And oftentimes, they're on the verge of their lives disintegrating," said attorney Altom Maglio.

The Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program "provides compensation to people who are injured or die from a vaccination, medication, device or other so-called countermeasure necessary to prevent, treat or fight a pandemic, epidemic or security threat," according to the program's website.

On March 10, 2020, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar issued a declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act that authorized that program for Covid-related claims.

HHS has a far more generous program, know as the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It currently covers injuries stemming from 16 commonly used vaccines, such as for the flu, whooping cough and polio, but does not cover the Covid vaccine because it hasn't yet been approved for use in kids.

The Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program rarely pays, rejecting more than 90% of claims filed, according to HHS and FOIA records. When it does, the claims average around $200,000 — about 60% less than the average payment under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, according to HHS data. Since the program was founded in 2009, it has paid out only 29 claims as of August, for the H1N1 and smallpox vaccines. One of those was classified by HHS as for shoulder pain.

Maglio calls the CICP a "black hole." 

"Really, it is a compensation program in name only and not in reality," he said.

The VICP provides victims a chance to make their case in court with judges, lawyers and have a right to appeal. Under the other, he said, there is no right of appeal.

Unlike the VICP, the CICP does not cover legal fees or pain and suffering.

The VICP has paid out approximately $4.5 billion in total compensation as of March 1 since it began taking claims in 1998. That dwarfs the CICP's roughly $6 million in paid benefits over the life of the program, according to HHS.

Last July, HHS proposed a new rule that would roll back existing consumer protections for shoulder injuries stemming from vaccine shots, saying they were caused by "negligence by the vaccine administrator" and not the vaccines themselves. That would have forced people with shoulder injuries to sue whoever gave the vaccine, according to Maglio.

It was scheduled to take effect in February, but the new administration under President Joe Biden paused all rules proposed in the last days of the Trump administration.

The Biden administration announced plans last week to withdraw the final rule. 

"HHS also is proposing to rescind the final rule because it is concerned that it could have a negative impact on vaccine administrators, which would be at odds with the federal government's efforts to increase vaccinations in the United States to respond to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic," HHS wrote in its notice to withdraw the proposed rules.

A spokesperson from the Health Resources and Service Administration, the agency within HHS that oversees the vaccine injury compensation programs, declined an interview. Instead the agency directed CNBC to its public notices.

"I believe instead of weakening this program and removing injuries from it, it needs to be strengthened," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. "It's not really been revamped since 1988 when it was enacted."

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) speaks during a press conference calling for lower drug prices, especially in regards to the coronavirus, on Capitol Hill on March 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum | Getty Images

Doggett's office estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 people across the country will likely have an adverse reaction to the Covid vaccine, based on statistics from the H1N1 vaccine. 

"It will encourage confidence to know that in the extraordinarily unlikely event, maybe 1 in a million chance, that you suffer adverse consequences, that there is a fund there to protect you so that you are not saddled with big medical bills and other loss," he said.

Oakley said she believes in vaccines but wants a program in case something goes wrong.

"I would just be concerned that if this program was taken away, then if somebody had a problem, an adverse effect from a vaccine, they really wouldn't have any recourse," she said.