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Wednesday, June 3, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Goodbye to free vaccines

Darcy Pope receives her vaccines at Northwest Spokane Pediatrics on Thursday. Washington currently offers free vaccinations to all children, but the state plans to pull back on its coverage of childhood vaccines, as a  worsening budget picture means a likely end to free immunizations.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Darcy Pope receives her vaccines at Northwest Spokane Pediatrics on Thursday. Washington currently offers free vaccinations to all children, but the state plans to pull back on its coverage of childhood vaccines, as a worsening budget picture means a likely end to free immunizations. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Darcy never saw it coming.

The 11-month-old with wispy red hair cuddled in her mother’s arms and smiled at all the fuss and bustle of nurses preparing to stick needles into her thighs.

As the syringes emptied into her tiny legs, she whimpered and then cried. But don’t feel bad for Darcy Pope: She just received the modern miracle of vaccination courtesy of Washington taxpayers.

Every day the staff at Northwest Spokane Pediatrics immunizes Spokane children against diseases that had historically sickened, crippled and killed children in haunting numbers.

State health programs, buoyed by liberal social policies, flush with cash and aiming to reverse lagging vaccination rates, had turned Washington into a state where all children received free vaccines. Parents and insurers, including Medicaid, were still on the hook for the cost of administering the shots, but the state-paid vaccines put Washington among a group of six states that offered universal coverage.

That is about to change.

The economic downturn, along with years of increased state spending, has created a $6 billion budget hole that the Washington Legislature will reckon with beginning this month.

Providing free vaccines to every Washington child – regardless of family financial means – costs about $42 million every year. It was an obvious place to start finding budget savings, said state Secretary of Health Mary Selecky.

“We had to look at every place we spent money,” she said of her office’s efforts to help Gov. Chris Gregoire come up with a budget plan. “Our largest singular expenditure is vaccines.”

The cuts are likely to be adopted so that HIV/AIDS education, family planning and funding for local health districts can be spared.

The state’s money now supplements federal funds that are earmarked to ensure poor children have access to immunizations along with Native American and Alaska Native children. Without state money, private insurers will pick up the cost rather than their customers receiving the state-subsidized vaccinations.

Scott Forslund, a spokesman for Premera Blue Cross, said the health insurer is ready to pay for its customers receiving the vaccines if the Legislature approves the spending cuts.

Insurance executives, however, are concerned that the move is further aggravating the practice of “cost shifting” – having private insurers and their customers pay more to compensate for inadequate government spending on health care. Forslund points to a study that shows private insurance is shouldering an extra $1.4 billion a year in payment shortfalls from Medicare and Medicaid.

“Yet we also understand that the state is in an unprecedented bind right now,” Forslund said.

The federal dollars, Selecky said, should be enough to cover the vaccines for children who qualify for Medicaid.

An unknown is who will pay for the vaccines of children who fall through the coverage cracks between Medicaid eligibility and affordable health insurance.

“Certainly there are things we don’t know yet,” said Tim Church, spokesman for the Washington Department of Health.

That’s why the cutbacks will unfold in two phases, he said.

Starting July 1 the state will no longer pay $7 million a year for the vaccine for human papillomavirus – or HPV – that pharmaceutical company Merck developed and began selling 18 months ago under the brand name Gardasil. The vaccine is recommended for girls and young women ages 9 to 26, and immunizes against 70 percent of the HPV strains that cause cervical cancers, along with many organisms that cause vulvar and vaginal cancer and 90 percent of cases of genital warts.

Then, beginning July 1, 2010, the state will stop paying for other vaccines, including those guarding against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae B, mumps, measles, chickenpox and others.

Zadia Short, who took her baby Keira for immunizations last week, said she hopes that vaccines are readily available to her daughter as changes occur.

“They’re so important,” she said. “I hope nothing happens to make getting vaccines difficult.”

Selecky said the hope is that the state can use the year between the HPV and other vaccine spending cutbacks to identify coverage gaps so that every child in need of vaccines can get them without parents having to balance dollars and disease risk.

Washington and Idaho both rank in the bottom five nationally for vaccinating children ages 19 months to 35 months old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About two-thirds of Idaho children have received the full regimen of six vaccines requiring multiple doses. The national average is 77.4 percent.

Washington fared just a bit better in the survey – 69 percent of toddlers had been vaccinated.

Selecky said part of the problem with vaccination rates is the reluctance of parents – often because of concern over the safety of immunizations.

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