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As labs work on COVID-19 vaccine, government tries to take away right to seek damages if injured by other shots

Medical professionals question why the government wants to remove patient protection for the leading cause of vaccine injury.

ATLANTA — As we prepare for a new vaccine to fight COVID-19, the government is trying to take away the program designed to avoid lawsuits and maintain public confidence in our nationwide vaccine program.

Thousands of people have turned to the little-known government program that will pay your medical bills if you develop SIRVA. Some argue the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is using the pandemic as a distraction get rid of the program with little debate. 

Debbie, who has asked us not to use her last name for privacy, says she was recovering from cancer when her doctor encouraged her to get a flu shot. She chose to visit the county health department to get it. As soon as the needle entered her arm, she knew something was wrong.

“I couldn’t even move my arm. I mean I couldn’t lift it up,” Debbie remembered.

Credit: WXIA

For nearly a year, she struggled to do the most basic tasks - buckling a seat belt, doing the laundry.

“I went through a lot emotionally, and physically and it was very difficult," Debbie said

No one could explain her muscle weakness or pain until she saw 11Alive's 2018 segment on our investigative show, the Reveal. 

“My husband and I looked at each other and said, 'holy Toledo. This is a thing'," she recalled. "Everything you’ve gone through and everything you’ve described is legitimate. It’s not in your head."

That segment exposed a program issuing payouts to people with SIRVA without holding the people who caused the injuries accountable. No notification. No retraining.

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SIRVA stands for "shoulder injury related to vaccine administration." It’s caused when the flu and several other types of shots are given too high or deep.

“In HHS’s own research, they’re the ones that identified this injury,” said Attorney Leah Durant, whose law firm focuses on vaccine injury claims. 

Durant said HHS’ involvement in researching and recommending SIRVA be added to the program is important, because just three years later, they are the group trying to take it out.

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“It’s only now that we’re seeing more and more cases being filed, that you’re seeing them make an about-face and try to remove SIRVA from the vaccine injury table,"Durant said. "Nothing has changed. The science has not changed.”

The Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines (ACCV), which watches over the program, learned of the proposed change when it received a "confidential" draft. Instead of public hearings, HHS wanted them to quietly offer written recommendations.

Board members, SIRVA petitioners past and present, medical professionals and attorneys started writing and calling HHS, asking for more information. The ACCV, which meets quarterly, eventually decided to move up the date of its next meeting, so it could have a public session on the proposed change before the deadline to weigh in expired.

At the end of that session, ACCV voted against the change. But it’s unclear what impact that will have on HHS’ interest in moving forward.

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Last year, a spokesperson for HHS said in an email exchange the agency had no intention of removing SIRVA from the program. But investigative reporter Rebecca Lindstrom filed a series of open records requests anyway, asking for emails and internal memos related to the program.

HHS sent back hundreds of pages of redacted documents. A year later, the Department of Justice, which vets and questions claims that don’t appear to have merit in court, has yet to send The Reveal any documents related to our request.

According to the draft proposal, HHS in part, no longer believes it's the vaccine that attributes to SIRVA. It insists the problem is "how" the shot is given, which is not the intent of the Vaccine Injury Program.

Credit: WXIA

A shoulder surgeon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine sent a letter to the Secretary of HHS strongly disagreeing. An attorney who worked for the Department of Justice on vaccine injury claims for 30 years also sent a letter, accusing the government of changing its policy to “alleviate the workload” since SIRVA now accounts for 54 percent of all claims filed in the program.

“I think the timing of this is very suspicious,” Durant said.

Durant believes the move is positioned while the public and lawmakers are focused on COVID-19. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists that would suddenly be open to vaccine injury lawsuits if SIRVA is removed from the program, are also distracted.

“It would make physicians, I think, say, 'I’m not giving shots anymore because I don’t want to be liable',” Debbie said.

Debbie ended up with a tear in her bicep and rotator cuff. Surgery eased the pain, but she may never get back her full range of motion. She told 11Alive the proposal to remove SIRVA from the program is offensive.

“It takes all of us and puts us in one bucket and says, 'you’re not worth what we’re doing'," Debbie said. "To just start fresh and eliminate things they feel are just too much work is an insult to all those people."

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country. 

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