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LESSONS OF THE VACCINE FIASCO

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If anyone still wonders why polls show most Americans want Congress to go slow on health-care reform, consider the fiasco that resulted from needless federal intervention into just one small corner of this field.

When President Clinton took office, he promptly demanded that Washington provide free vaccinations for all youngsters - rich and poor alike - even though such immunization was already available privately and locally. The problem wasn't cost or inadequate supplies of vaccine. Rather, the difficulty was mainly that of apathy on the part of parents.Though Clinton pressed ahead anyway, Congress wisely cut back his proposal on the sensible ground that free vaccine should be given only to children from poor and uninsured families, not the affluent. But instead of relying on a private distribution system that was working just fine, Washington had to set up a national ware-house to store and distribute the vaccine. The warehouse became necessary when drug firms were unable to absorb delivery costs under federally imposed price limits.

This arrangement made the U.S. Public Health Service responsible for distributing the vaccine to the physicians who would give the shots. But the PHS simply lacked the capability of distributing vaccine on schedule to tens of thousands of private doctors.

As a result, reality finally set in this weeks and the Clinton administration abandoned its plans for the warehouse. But the warehouse wasn't scrapped until after the federal government had wasted $700,000 on it - money that could more effectively have been spent on other ways of preventing disease and promoting health.

The vaccine distribution program had been described by some officials as a dress rehearsal for the administration's efforts to overhaul the entire health-care system. What a laugh.

Overall health-care reform is much more complex than the childhood vaccination program. Do we really want to put such sweeping reforms in the hands of bunglers who don't recognize an effective existing vaccination system when they see it, can't resist the temptation to tinker with it, and then can't pull off their grandstanding?