Was a Coronavirus Bill Stalled Because of Arguments Over How Much to Charge for Vaccines?

As negotiations in the United States government continued through March 3 2020 on a federal spending package to address the spread of the coronavirus strain known as COVID-19, Politico reported on negotiations stalling between Democratic and Republican leaders stalled because of a dispute over the cost of a prospective vaccine, as well as other services:

Democrats are insisting the spending package include significant funding to purchase large amounts of coronavirus diagnostics, treatments and vaccine, when it becomes available, which would then be made available to the public free of cost, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The Democratic aide said Republicans are trying to eliminate the “fair and reasonable price” federal procurement standard for the vaccines and treatments that will be developed and purchased with the emergency funds. “Fair and reasonable price” is a basic standard to prevent price gouging in federal contracts.

Republicans, however, argue they are trying to fight Democratic efforts to create a new set of price controls and that they are not asking for changes to the underlying procurement standards.

The bickering appeared to take place along partisan lines and were bolstered by equally political talking points. As the New York Daily News pointed out on Twitter on February 26 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had already hedged on the issue of affordability for a vaccine while testifying before the House Appropriations Committee. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest,” Azar said, adding, “Price controls won’t get us there.”

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has already said that he would call for a vaccine to be covered under Medicare plans. “Seniors who will need this vaccine the most should not have to worry or wonder where they stand once it’s available,” he said on his own Twitter account.

But medical experts told Business Insider that a provision in the Affordable Care Act could provide a salve for people using it for their health insurance:

Under the ACA, health insurers must cover federally-recommended vaccines at no cost for most people, according to John Cogan, a professor of health insurance law and financial regulation at the University of Connecticut.

“Everyone under Obamacare would be covered under this vaccination without cost-sharing,” Cogan told Business Insider. That would extend to the health insurance people get through their employers, as well as to most health insurance programs like Medicaid for children and people with low incomes, he said.

The law mandates that vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control are exempt from co-pays and deductibles applied by insurance companies. “There’s an important link between broader healthcare policies like the Affordable Care Act and responding to a potential public health emergency like this virus,” said Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

On March 4 2020, Congressional leaders announced that they had reached an agreement on a roughly $8 billion spending plan to fight the virus.