Can we agree — when COVID-19 vaccines arrive, they need to be free?

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Senate hearing: “If and when the vaccine comes, it won’t do somebody any good if they don’t get it.”

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Sen. Bernie Sanders pressed the point Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that when COVID-19 vaccines arrive, they need to be free.

Win Mcnamee/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Everybody agrees we need a COVID-19 vaccine. Multiple potential vaccines to save us from the coronavirus infections are in development.  Can we agree on something else — when vaccines arrive, they need to be free?

Don’t be sidetracked because it was Sen. Bernie Sanders who pressed this point at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sanders, the Vermont Independent, made universal health insurance a centerpiece of his Democratic presidential bid.

This is not about Sanders. This is not about overhauling our health coverage system. Don’t get distracted.

A vaccine works if almost everybody gets it. That’s why schools have immunization requirements. You can’t enroll a kid in a Chicago Public School without a polio vaccine.

The Hispanic community in Chicago is particularly hard hit. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., who has been scrambling for solutions, told me, “Access to a future coronavirus vaccine, once it’s developed, must be readily available to all segments of society, including immigrants, regardless of their ability to pay.”

If everybody has insurance, a preventative vaccine would likely be covered. If everybody has extra cash, paying for a vaccine may not be a big deal.

But everybody doesn’t have insurance or cash.

And even if you have resources — and now finally want to get insurance because the pandemic knocked some sense into you — President Donald Trump won’t allow early enrollment into Obamacare health insurance plans because of his vendetta against former President Barack Obama.

The Senate hearing was titled, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.”  The GOP panel chair is Sen. Lamar Alexander, working remotely from home in Tennessee because one of his staffers had been exposed. Others attended remotely.

The hearing was much touted because the four witnesses included Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has emerged as the face of the fight against the pandemic — and who was banned by the Trump White House from testifying before the Democratic House.

The others on the panel were Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services; and Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Sanders said to Hahn, “Let me ask the honorable FDA commissioner. Sir, if, God-willing, a vaccine is developed and if we’re able to produce it as quickly as we all hope we can, I would imagine that that vaccine would be distributed to all people free of charge, or make sure at least that everybody in America who needs that vaccine will get it regardless of their income.

Asked Sanders, “Is that a fair assumption?”  

Hahn either didn’t understand the question or tried to spin his way out of it.

He said, “Senator, I certainly hope so. FDA is very committed, making sure that all populations in the United States, including those most vulnerable, are included in the clinical trials,” Hahn said as Sanders interrupted.

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Sanders said.

“What I’m asking is if and when the vaccine comes, it won’t do somebody any good if they don’t get it. And if they have to pay a sum of money for it in order to profit the drug companies, that will not be helpful. Are you guaranteeing the American people today that that vaccine will be available to all people regardless of their income?”

“Sir, the payment of vaccines is not a responsibility of FDA, but I’m glad to take this back to the task force,” Hahn said. “I share your concern that this needs to be made available to every American.”

Sanders then asked, “Does anybody else want to comment on that?” There was silence.

Sanders asked Giroir, “Poor people and working people should be last on line for the vaccine?”

Replied Giroir, “Were you asking me?”

Yes he was.

Said Giroir, “I will certainly advocate that everyone receives the vaccine regardless of income or any other circumstance.”

If we are lucky enough to get a vaccine within a year, let’s just make sure everyone gets, one — paid with government funding, if need be. We can argue broader health policy another day.

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