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Frist, Hastert Aid Vaccine Companies

Critics of the liability shield worry it will be used as a backdoor way to cripple consumer’s ability to file liability suits against negligent companies, particularly since it includes no review mechanism.

During an early-morning meeting of the House Rules Committee on the bill, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a vocal critic of the vaccine industry, complained bitterly that he had been assured the language would not be included in the bill. “This kind of thing should not be done at 11 at night,” he said.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) accused the GOP of tricking conferees, saying on the House floor that he had been assured the liability provision would not make it into the defense bill.

A group called Protect American Families last week announced a new online ad campaign criticizing the Majority Leader’s support for the avian flu bill, complaining that Frist is attempting to “sneak” overly broad liability language into the Defense spending bill.

Republicans strongly denied that they misled negotiators and insist that the unusual arrangement to include the language was struck only because the provisions had been inadvertently left out.

“There appears to have been some administrative snafu ... that led to much confusion,” a Senate Republican aide familiar with the situation said, adding that it took “several hours’ work to clear up that the avian package ... were indeed physically included along the lines understood by the Leader and the Speaker.”

The aide also noted the provisions are to apply only to a narrow section of the drug industry. Republicans also say that their most vocal critics in the legal world also stand to lose financially if liability claims are curtailed.

“Sen. Frist supports the PREP Act and the $3.8 billion in funding signed by a majority of the conferees to ensure we have the capacity to develop products to rapidly protect the American people from a bioterror attack or flu pandemic,” said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call.

Although exact figures of the level of liability vaccine makers could face are unknown, the government is planning to stockpile enough medicine to treat at least one quarter of the population. If recent cases over faulty medication are extrapolated outward, the shield could be worth billions in avoided legal costs.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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