Investigation: Program to help people with vaccine complications rarely pays out for COVID-19 cases

ATLANTA — The federal program designed to help people who experience complications after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine rarely gives payouts, according to internal documents Channel 2 Action News has uncovered.

Compensation for vaccines gone wrong is nothing new. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was developed in 1988.  Individual cases are heard in vaccine court. Claimants don’t need to prove willful misconduct in order to be approved for relief for injuries associated with a vaccine.

But the COVID-19 vaccine is not part of that program. Instead, COVID-19 cases will be sent to a secretive federal program. And according to documents uncovered, the program has only paid a handful of people since it was created.

Gwinnett County nurse, Joanna Oakley, told Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray she knew something wasn’t right the moment the needle entered her arm during her 2015 flu shot.

“Immediately, it felt kind like it hit bone,” she said. The shot was injected into the wrong part of her arm and destroyed tendons.

After multiple surgeries, Oakley is no longer able to work as a post-anesthesia nurse.

“I loved my patient interaction. I loved caring for them, so it definitely stole that from me,” she said.

Oakley was able to find some relief in the form of compensation for lost wages and medical bills by filing a claim with the federal government.

“It was not complicated at all,” Oakley said.

Attorney Anne Toale specializes in vaccine cases.

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“It’s actually a regular court of law,” Toale explained. Eight special judges decide the cases brought to the court.

“It’s strictly liability that if you can bring it in this program, not against the manufacturer, but against basically the federal government, who has kind of assumed the role of compensating people for injuries,” said professor Peter Meyers, who  specializes in vaccine injury litigation at George Washington University School of Law.

“You have a right to a hearing. You have a right to not only a lawyer and medical experts who the program will pay for to help you bring your claim,” Meyers said.

The fund covers vaccines routinely given to children or pregnant women. The flu shot Oakley received falls into that category.

COVID-19 vaccines do not. They’re covered under a separate fund called the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP).

“The statute passed in 2005 to encourage manufacturers to make these countermeasures, including vaccines,” said Meyers. He believes companies need to have the ability to create lifesaving medical care without fear of litigation.

“They’re overseen by the federal government. They’re regulated. People are carefully looking over what they’ve done. They have to report to the government — what they know about risks and how effective it is,” he said. But for those who are negatively impacted by an emergency vaccine, Meyers said the CICP needs to be more open.

“I believe that the compensation program for the coronavirus can be analogized to a black hole,” said Meyers.

“You can’t even find out today how many claims have been filed for the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s secret,” he said.

Chavonya Littlejohn received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 29.

“Maybe five or six minutes into it, everything started burning. My chest got very red and welty. I remember being walked out of the board room, but it kinda gets foggy after that,” she said. She also told Gray her lips and throat began to swell. “It was like a day and a half later, I woke up. I had been intubated on a ventilator and transferred to a bigger hospital.”

Littlejohn said she missed nearly a month of work, and her medical bills are piling up after her three-day stay in the intensive care unit.

She qualifies for the CICP.

Both Toale and Meyers said that’s not much consolation.

A Freedom of Information Act request found the CICP rarely pays claims.

Gray went through the documents and found that in 10 years, the program paid just 39 claims. In comparison, the Vaccine Compensation fund paid 78% of claims filed in 2020 alone.

The CICP was created to cover vaccines and devices developed for emergency use.

Individuals must file a claim within one year of the injury, and no information about why a decision was made is available.

“There’s no lawyers. There’s no expert witnesses. It’s just some bureaucrats,” Toale said. She said that for someone injured by the COVID-19 vaccine to have any chance for compensation, the vaccine would need to move to vaccine court.

“I can’t prove a vaccine injury in the countermeasures program no matter how good of a lawyer I am. It’s not possible. We’re basically saying hang tight,” Toale said.

When Gray reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services, the department that runs the CICP, he was told the COVID-19 vaccine can’t move into vaccine court until it’s recommended for routine use for children or pregnant women by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As it stands, Congress would have to change the law for cases like Littlejohn’s to be heard in vaccine court.

Pfizer does have clinical trials involving children underway. The safety information it provides is required before the CDC will recommend the vaccine for children.

Both Oakley and Littlejohn said they will continue to get vaccines, but Littlejohn wants everyone to have a fair path to compensation if something goes wrong.

“It’s not geared toward the consumer. It’s not geared toward the patient at all,” she said.