Opinion: Federal policies needed to encourage and increase immunization for seniors

Immunization is one of the greatest and most effective tools we have when it comes to maintaining good health and reducing illness.

For older Ohioans, access to necessary vaccines that prevent flu, shingles, pneumonia and more can greatly improve quality of life.

As an advocate for health-care services for all Ohioans, I would like to sound an alert for two items in federal policy that could impact seniors’ access to necessary vaccines.

The first concerns newly approved vaccinations for adults over age 50. These new pneumonia vaccines already are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are now in another approval process with the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). The ACIP is a specialized sub-committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ACIP’s recommendation is necessary to enable widespread availability and insurance coverage of all vaccines.

Some health-care advocates are urging the ACIP to expedite approval of the newer pneumonia vaccines and move their timeline from an October vote to doing so immediately.

The timing is critical, because vaccines must stay ahead of flu and pneumonia season. If ACIP recommendations can happen during the summer months, more Americans can get vaccinated before illness starts to spread.

The second item health-care advocates are watching concerns something called the “Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act.” This legislation addresses inequities in how vaccines are provided to seniors, in Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D.

Right now, vaccines covered under Medicare Part B (includes flu, pneumonia vaccines) are available at no cost to a beneficiary. Vaccines covered under Medicare Part D (includes shingles, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and future vaccines) have a cost share obligation for beneficiaries.

The “Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act” would eliminate the cost-sharing obligation for Part D beneficiaries and align beneficiary co-pay and co-insurance policies as they apply to vaccines in both Part B and Part D.

Immunization is important for older Ohioans because the death rate from pneumonia is higher for people over age 65. Pneumococcal disease is the leading cause of serious illness, worldwide. In the United States, about 1.3 million people will visit the emergency department with pneumonia, and nearly 50,000 will die from it.

Expediting the ACIP vote on the new pneumonia vaccines and passing the “Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act” would enable more seniors to be immunized against preventable illnesses.

Vaccines can prevent, or for some people, lessen the symptoms of serious illnesses, including pneumonia, flu, and shingles. When patient out-of-pocket costs for these treatments are waived, more Ohioans will be encouraged and motivated to get immunized and avoid preventable illnesses.