Let’s Make Vaccines Affordable for Rural Seniors

If the pandemic should have taught us one thing, it is that older Americans need affordable access to vaccines. Unfortunately, Medicare has a system that doesn’t make that as easy as it should. Ironically, younger, employed adults typically pay nothing for vaccines, while those with Medicare, who are at greater risk of infectious disease, can pay more than $100 for certain vaccines.

This disparity is particularly problematic for rural communities. People living in rural areas are more likely to die from COVID-19, more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions and more likely to be food insecure, among other health challenges, according to a study by McKinsey.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that if you fall ill in a rural community, you are less likely to have access to high-quality care, particularly intensive care, and that rural communities skew older than urban communities, putting additional pressure on local health care resources. These facts make it even more important that we take commonsense actions to help people living in rural communities prevent disease and keep them out of hospitals. One of the best and most cost-effective ways to do this is to ensure they are vaccinated against common infectious diseases.

Unfortunately, the way Medicare is currently structured puts some vaccines out of reach for many seniors. In Medicare, vaccines are paid for through two programs: Part B and Part D. In Part B, vaccines are available with no cost-share. Congress specifically ensured that COVID-19 vaccines would be placed in Part B so that seniors would not have to pay to get vaccinated. However, for vaccines covered under Part D, people with Medicare may have to pay significant out-of-pocket costs before receiving their vaccines — potentially hundreds of dollars. Common sense and the data tell us that the more seniors must pay, the less likely they are to get vaccinated.

Vaccines are unique in that not only do they go through FDA approval, but they are also reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and a recommendation is made for their use. Once that recommendation is made, it is the job of public health officials and health care providers to help make sure the recommendation is followed; however, Medicare’s current policies makes that job harder than it needs to be. The most important thing we can do to help ensure seniors get vaccinated is to remove financial disincentives that put vaccines out of reach for many seniors.

Fortunately, some in Congress understand this and are pushing a bi-partisan solution. Representatives Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Larry Dean Bucshon (R-Ind.), along with more than 40 of their colleagues, are co-sponsoring the Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act, which would ensure that all ACIP-recommended vaccines would be available without cost-sharing for those with Medicare. This simple, cost-effective, bipartisan proposal would go a long way toward ensuring that seniors have access to the vaccines that America’s public health authorities recommend.

For seniors living in rural communities this would be particularly welcome news.

Let’s learn the lessons of COVID-19 and ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have the benefit of vaccines that have been proven to dramatically reduce the risk of infectious disease. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange, America’s oldest agricultural, rural life and small town citizen advocacy organization.

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