VFW backs Tester's call for better vaccine accountability for veterans

The Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is urging vaccination of veterans against a number of illnesses and diseases.

The Access to Appropriate Immunizations for Veterans Act, also sponsored by Rep. Clifford B. "Cliff" Stearns, R-Fla., aims to ensure that veterans receive timely and suitable access to vaccines. It would also prevent those under the care of the VA from being unnecessarily exposed to vaccine-preventable disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people 19 and older receive immunizations against more than a dozen infectious diseases.

Each year, about 70,000 adults die from diseases that may have been prevented with a vaccine, according to the CDC. Influenza alone is responsible for more than 200,000 hospitalizations and 30,000 deaths.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommends vaccines as protection against deadly viruses. However, the VA only has established best practice measures for two vaccines — influenza and pneumococcal — making it unclear if protocols are routinely enforced for all CDC-recommended vaccines.

When these best practices were initially applied, the VA saw vaccination rates rise from 27 percent and 26 percent to 77 percent and 80 percent. It also resulted in a 50 percent decline in pneumonia hospitalization rates.

Many veterans who are in the "high-risk" category of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases, including those with HIV and hepatitis C, are enrolled in the VA health care system.

"It only makes sense to ensure VA provides vaccines that the CDC says are safe and effective," said Michael J. Bennett Jr., commander of the VFW for Montana. "Vaccines help us to live longer, healthier lives and we believe veterans should have the ability to receive any safe vaccination of their choosing."

The legislation, which has the support of the Veterans of Foreign Wars USA, would expand VA performance measures to cover all vaccinations recommended by the VA and CDC and ensure veterans, especially those in "high-risk" categories, receive appropriate immunizations at the time suggested by the CDC. It would also require the VA to report to Congress on their progress in supporting vaccinations in the veteran population.

This bill has been introduced in the U.S. House. Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is expected to introduce the legislation in the Senate on Thursday.

"Better access to vaccines will improve veterans' lives and ultimately save taxpayers money," Tester said. "This is a plan to make sure that veterans have quick and easy access to basic vaccines so they can lead full, healthy lives."

Shane Barker, a senior legislative associate for the VFW in Washington, D.C., referred to the legislation as a "smart move," emphasizing that any decision regarding vaccinations would ultimately be up to each individual veteran.

"This bill is going to move veterans' health care forward both in terms of prevention and cost," Barker said.