Jeanette Contreras portrait

La tercera vacuna trae esperanza

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

La Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos de los EE. UU. (FDA, por sus siglas en inglés) acaba de aprobar una autorización de uso de emergencia para la vacuna de Johnson & Johnson, la tercera vacuna para combatir el coronavirus en EEUU. Aunque parece que no es tan efectiva como las otras dos, la vacuna de Johnson & Johnson ofrece una protección de 85 por ciento contra casos severos de COVID-19 y 100 por ciento de eficacia para evitar hospitalización y mortalidad, a causa del COVID-19. Con solo una dosis, esta vacuna ofrece protección de 72 por ciento contra el COVID-19 que ultimadamente ayuda controlar la pandemia en la población y alcanzar un nivel de inmunidad necesaria para regresar a la vida normal.

Una ventaja enorme de esta vacuna en términos de administración, es que se puede mantener en refrigeración normal por meses. Las otras vacunas requieren mantenimiento de temperatura súper baja en refrigeradores industriales que solo se encuentran en hospitales grandes. La vacuna de Johnson & Johnson es ideal para distribuir a comunidades rurales y en clínicas comunitarias. La aprobación de esta tercera vacuna, aumenta la disponibilidad y nos da esperanza de poder vacunar a más personas, más rápido con solo una dosis.

Sabemos que la comunidad Latina sufre de una taza de contagio más alta que otros grupos. Latinos constituyen una gran cantidad de empleados en trabajos esenciales con alto riesgo de contagio, como en la producción de comida y en puestos de trabajo de pequeños negocios. Mientras muchos esperan vacunarse, otros tendrán dudas o miedo de vacunarse. La campaña Depende De Ti nos asegura que es normal tener preguntas y ofrece información y respuestas en Español para educar a la comunidad latina.

Campañas educativas como esta son necesaria para combatir información falsa y mitos que circulan en las redes sociales. Se escuchan mitos que las vacunas en general hacen daño o que alteran o cambian el ADN. Sin embargo, está comprobado científicamente por siglos que las vacunas han salvado vidas y nos han protegido. Los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC, por sus siglas en inglés) tiene una página dedicada a información para derribar los mitos más frecuentes acerca de estas vacunas.

Para alentar a la población a vacunarse, muchas empresas grandes están ofreciendo tiempo pagado o incentivos financieros a los empleados que se vacunan. Por ejemplo, supermercados como Publix les da $125 y Kroger les da $100 a empleados cuando reciben la vacuna completa. Dollar General les aumenta cuatro horas de pago normal a los que se vacunan.

Gracias a la autorización de la nueva vacuna, Presidente Biden afirma que para el fin de mayo habrá vacunas para todos los adultos en EEUU. Las personas que deciden vacunarse, pueden buscar información confiable en el recurso de Telemundo – PlanificaTuVacuna.com para verificar la elegibilidad de acuerdo a las ordenes de cada estado.

Getting more vaccines in arms: Trust and efficiencies

Guest blog by Farah Towfic, PharmD, MBA, director of the U.S. Pharmacopeia COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit

In the United States, nearly 200 million doses of influenza vaccines are administered annually. Clearly, pharmacists, nurses, physicians, and other healthcare practitioners have demonstrated a successful track record of delivering robust immunization programs for many years. However, the unprecedented scale and speed at which the COVID-19 vaccinations must be delivered to curb the devastating impact of this pandemic has surfaced enormous challenges—which have been further compounded by significant vaccine supply demand.​ Never before have we had to distribute multiple doses to more than 15 billion individuals around the world, with more than 300 million in the U.S. alone.

The pandemic has also recharged the focus on vaccine hesitancy, a challenging and complex issue which, at its core, is about trust based on a person’s experience and perspective. According to the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, a growing share of the public is open to getting vaccinated, but many of the same groups that were hesitant in December 2020, when the first COVID-19 vaccines were released, remain hesitant now. When deciding whether to get vaccinated, most people say they will likely turn to pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers as the source for information. The KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor also notes that 85 percent of people trust their own doctor or healthcare provider at least a fair amount for reliable vaccine information.

If we are going to mitigate the impact of this pandemic, we need to help build and maintain trust in COVID-19 vaccines. As an independent, nonprofit, scientific organization, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) has been dedicated—for more than 200 years—to improving global health and building trust in medicine through public standards and related programs that help ensure the quality, safety, and benefit of our drugs. With our shared goals to provide patient access to quality medicines, USP is proud to be a founding member of the National Consumers League (NCL) Health Advisory Council. The Council’s informative communication and opportunities for engagement provide critical perspectives that help shape and inform USP’s strategic focus and initiatives. The Health Advisory Council also demonstrates the power of collaboration—which is a cornerstone of USP’s work.

By working together with stakeholders, partners in industry and the U.S. government, we are able to identify the COVID-19 vaccine operational challenges and also provide solutions. One of these solutions is the recently released USP COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit, which addresses gaps that slow getting shots in arms and helps healthcare practitioners safely deliver vaccines in a variety of settings.

As millions of additional doses of COVID-19 vaccines are released, the USP COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit is helping doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare practitioners create operational efficiencies to vaccinate more people in their communities quickly and safely, all the while maintaining quality. It includes strategies in three key areas:

  • Preparation and labeling to support different practitioners preparing and administering vaccines including how to maximize the number of doses per vial and enabling pre-drawing of vaccines in advance of large immunization events.
  • Storing, handling, and transporting the vaccine to mass vaccination clinics, nursing and long-term care facilities, and more.
  • Waste prevention and disposal to support settings in preventing vaccine waste and addressing gaps for vaccine administrators in proper disposal of ancillary supplies, such as syringes.

“Using the strategies from the USP Vaccine Handling Toolkit for pre-drawing syringes and streamlining our processes and workflow we increased shots in arms by 50% per day,” says Patricia W. Slattum, Pharm.D., Ph.D., BCGP, a vaccine administrator with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corp and Virginia Commonwealth University.

More than 40 independent expert volunteers along with U.S. government representatives developed this toolkit that enables healthcare practitioners to benefit from consistent, scientific-based strategies developed by independent experts that close efficiency gaps across states and territories.

The USP COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit is one of several initiatives USP is undertaking to support quality and build trust in COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and preventatives. For example, our Hand Sanitizer Toolkit, launched in spring 2020, is being used by many around the world to ensure quality preparation of this essential COVID-19 preventative.

As the nation’s pioneer consumer organization, that leads the charge on the importance of adherence to live-savings medicines, NCL plays a pivotal role in helping to build trust in vaccines. USP values the opportunity to share the COVID-19 Vaccine Handling Toolkit with NCL and looks ahead to future opportunities to partner with NCL and other stakeholders in the patient advocacy community.

As more is learned about COVID-19 vaccines, additional information will be shared in the future. We encourage NCL’s readers to sign-up for updates at www.usp.org/covid-vaccine-handling​.

About USP
USP is an independent scientific organization that collaborates with the world’s top experts in health and science to develop quality standards for medicines, dietary supplements, and food ingredients. Through our standards, advocacy, and education, USP helps increase the availability of quality medicines, supplements, and food for billions of people worldwide.

NCL testimony before FDA on Janssen Biotech COVID-19 vaccine

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

February 26, 2021

NCL’s Associate Director of Health Policy Nissa Shaffi testified before the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Read her testimony.

Hana El Sahly, M.D., Chair
Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee
Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research
Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Ave, Silver Spring, MD 20993

RE: Docket No. FDA-2021-N-0173; for Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee

Good Afternoon. I am Nissa Shaffi, present today on behalf of the National Consumers League. I have no conflicts of interest to disclose. Our organization extends its gratitude to the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, for the opportunity to amplify consumer voices regarding the Janssen Biotech COVID-19 vaccine.

For over 120 years, NCL has championed efforts to increase vaccine education, safety, and access for consumers. As consumer advocates, we thank the Food and Drug Administration for their commitment to fostering public trust throughout the development and approval of a vaccine for COVID-19. We have been encouraged by the transparency and opportunities for engagement afforded to the public during this process.

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA)

Consumers are relying on the FDA more than ever for guidance pertaining to treatments for COVID-19, and preserving their confidence in the Agency is of vital importance at this time. Emergency Use Authorization, while not intended to replace randomized clinical trials, has been a critical component to the nation’s pandemic strategy. NCL appreciates the FDA’s recognition of clinical trials as vital to demonstrating the safety and efficacy of a treatment.

Safety and Effectiveness

We are encouraged by reports indicating that the Janssen Biotech vaccine has proven to be effective against hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. The added benefit of another vaccine is to decrease virus mutation. Presently, three, far more contagious, variants of COVID-19 spread and could hamper efforts to quell the virus. We are reassured that the Janssen vaccine has demonstrated efficacy against certain variants. As new data is collected, we call on the FDA to perform post-market surveillance to monitor ongoing efficacy.

Health Equity

Vaccine hesitancy and social determinants of health remain critical obstacles in the vaccine rollout process. The Janssen Biotech single-shot vaccine has the potential to increase access for hard-to-reach communities, bringing us closer to herd immunity. This week, we marked a grim milestone, as half a million Americans have now perished from this relentless virus. Amidst this loss, the continued development of vaccines for COVID-19 has provided the nation with much-needed hope and respite.

As the Committee deliberates on the Janssen Biotech COVID-19 vaccine, we request the Agency to also consider the benefit its release would have for historically disadvantaged communities, for which this vaccine would be logistically more accessible than the prior two vaccines.

Thank you to the Committee for your consideration of our views. Through our consumer education work, NCL will continue to support FDA in its efforts to develop a safe, effective, and expedited pathway towards a vaccine for COVID-19.

Sincerely,

Nissa Shaffi
Associate Director of Health Policy
National Consumers League

 

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.
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NCL testimony before CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices highlights Hep. B vaccine disparities

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

February 24, 2021

NCL’s Associate Director of Health Policy Nissa Shaffi testified before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices today. Read her testimony.

José R. Romero, MD, FAAP, Chair
Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road, N.E., Mailstop A27
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027

RE: Docket No. CDC-2021-0008; Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP)

Good Afternoon. I am Nissa Shaffi and I will be presenting public comment on behalf of the National Consumers League. For over 120 years, NCL has championed vaccine education and access for consumers who depend on these lifesaving medical interventions. We extend our gratitude to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the opportunity to serve as a voice for consumers.

NCL remains committed to educating consumers on the value and safety of immunizations. During the COVID-19 pandemic immunization rates have dropped drastically, which means that our work is needed more than ever. Even under ordinary circumstances, vaccines are underutilized in adult populations, especially among racial and ethnic minority communities.

Health disparities contribute largely to the burden for Hepatitis B infection, with Asian/Pacific islanders and non-Hispanic black communities having the highest rates of HBV-related death. Despite vaccine recommendations, there is an estimated prevalence for chronic HBV infection in the US of nearly 1.6 million persons (range 1.2–2.5 million).

NCL is concerned that the updated guidance for those over 60 years of age with diabetes getting vaccinated only upon shared decision making with their providers will not address the health disparities that persist. The populations at greatest risk for HepB infection are those that are more likely to lack access to health care and not have a primary care medical home. NCL would like to see the CDC support a large-scale education and outreach campaign to raise awareness of the risk of HepB in older adults and call for increased HepB screening in high-risk communities across the country.

NCL similarly shared its disappointment in response to ACIP’s 2019 recommendations for the pneumococcal vaccine to be administered for those over 65 years of age with shared decision making based on the rationale that childhood vaccinations had dramatically reduced the spread of this disease. However, pneumococcal disease continues to result in an estimated 150,000 hospitalizations per year. And adults over age 65 remain at increased risk for pneumococcal disease.

In light of the drop in childhood immunizations induced by the pandemic, the CDC may want to issue caution statements to providers that herd immunity may have diminished compared to years prior for many of the diseases we target with the most commonly recommended vaccines. As a commitment to our advocacy, NCL continues to reaffirm that vaccines save lives and will continue to support increased immunizations for preventable diseases.

In closing, we encourage ACIP to maintain effective public messaging and strong vaccine recommendations to instill vaccine confidence, so that the American public feels safe and informed in their decisions to vaccinate across the lifespan.

Thank you for your consideration of our views on this important public health issue.

 

Sincerely,

Nissa Shaffi
Associate Director of Health Policy
National Consumers League

 

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.
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NCL supports the Black Maternal Health Momnibus

For immediate release: February 16, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org(202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) is proud to support the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act introduced last week by Representatives Lauren Underwood (D-IL) and Alma Adams (D-NC), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. The Momnibus includes 12 bills intended to comprehensively address the maternal health crisis that disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and women of color in this country.

Among other measures, the Momnibus calls for improvements to data collection and quality measures to help policymakers better understand the causes of maternal mortality in the United States. NCL has long supported policies to improve maternal health outcomes and advocated for increased access to healthcare for vulnerable populations. NCL’s founders supported early studies on the causes of infant mortality at the Hull House in Chicago in the 1890’s.

“It’s inexcusable for a nation as advanced and well-resourced as the United States to have the highest pregnancy-related death rate in the developed world. Our current healthcare system is failing to protect black women, who are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications,” said NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras.

“We must also recognize the association between institutional racism and adverse birth outcomes among Black, Indigenous, and women of color,” said Contreras. The Momnibus provides investments to address the social determinants of health that create inequality, such as access to housing, transportation, and adequate nutrition. The legislation also provides funding to the community-based organizations whose work is integral to the support system shown to be effective at improving maternal health outcomes. The legislation further ensures that our most vulnerable moms have access to quality care throughout the pregnancy and during the critical first year of the infant’s life.

“NCL strongly supports the proposal to extend Medicaid and CHIP coverage to 12-months for postpartum care to mothers,” said Contreras. “As well as the legislation’s investments in diversifying the perinatal workforce—critical to providing culturally competent care to Black, Indigenous, and women of color. We enthusiastically call on Congress to support the passage of this comprehensive legislation to address the escalating maternal mortality crisis in this country.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

NCL testified before CDC committee on COVID-19 vaccine recommendations

For immediate release: December 22, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League (NCL) testified before the Centers for Disease Control and Disease Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) this weekend on the equitable distribution of the Moderna vaccine and recommendations for consumer education on vaccine safety. In its testimony, NCL applauds the transparency and access afforded to the public throughout the COVID-19 vaccine approval process.

Equitable distribution:

NCL is encouraged that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the Moderna vaccine and that the U.S. government will lead distribution efforts. Due to its ease of transport and storage, the Moderna vaccine stands to readily ship to rural and hard to reach communities. NCL calls on federal health officials at the helm of distribution to facilitate access to the Moderna vaccine to medically underserved areas.

Safety and efficacy:

NCL expressed its trust in the FDA and CDC’s robust inter-agency collaboration to continue ongoing, post-market surveillance of adverse events among recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine and to inform consumers of any additional safety recommendations. NCL urged the CDC to educate consumers about potential reactions and side effects, as this transparency will further encourage the compliance necessary to achieve herd immunity. The vaccine is expected to induce flu-like symptoms after the initial dose and this may deter some patients from getting their second dose if they aren’t warned about what to anticipate.

Vaccine adherence:

NCL encouraged the CDC to conduct culturally competent and inclusive public messaging about vaccine safety to ensure that communities of color and persons with limited English proficiency are informed and feel empowered in their decisions to vaccinate. Adding to the complexity of administering the vaccine, public health officials will need to ensure the completion of two doses in a series. This stands to create additional challenges because evidence has shown that when a vaccine involves multiple doses, nearly 50 percent of patients fail to return for a second dose.

Equitable allocation:

NCL applauds ACIP’s recommendations to prioritize vaccinations for health care workers and long-term care facility residents in Phase 1a. Now that there are two approved vaccines, NCL calls on ACIP to prioritize recommendations to vaccinate the approximately 87 million non-healthcare essential workers unable to work from home—such as bus drivers and grocery workers—who are at higher risk of exposure. Racial and ethnic minorities make up more than 40 percent of the essential workforce and are the backbone of many essential industries. The pandemic has illustrated that low-income minority communities experience more severe COVID-related illness requiring hospitalization and are at higher risk for death.

Persons who recovered from COVID-19:

Lastly, over 18 million individuals in the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus. It is expected that individuals who recover will acquire some natural immunity to COVID-19. Individuals who recover from the coronavirus want to know if they are protected from reinfection and for how long. We call on the CDC to expedite developing vaccine recommendations for persons who’ve recovered from COVID-19.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Throwing COVID-19-related cautions to the wind

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

Over the past nine months, we’ve lived in a state of hypervigilance. The meticulous precautions we’ve observed throughout the pandemic have taken a toll on us. At worse, we’ve lost a loved one, friend, or coworker to this incessant virus. At best, we’ve been forced to recalibrate our routines and our lives. This collective weariness, to which experts have coined “COVID-19 Caution Fatigue is a prevailing factor in the current spike in cases.

When we are subjected to high levels of stress (e.g., high alert related to COVID-19), it can activate the stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of this hormone can cause us to become desensitized to the stimuli that triggered the stress hormone in the first place. Meaning, we start to ease up on our vigilance because the threat feels less real. These factors compounded—by feelings of isolation due to limited social contact‑—may have caused us to lose the motivation to maintain safe practices.

We see evidence of this as people are increasingly dining indoors, gathering for weddings, going to rallies, and are boarding flights nationwide. These behaviors are considered responsible for “superspreader events,” where COVID positive people expose multiple others. On average, every person with COVID-19 can potentially transmit the virus to two to three additional people. This has a multiplier effect with people spreading it, in turn, to another two to three people, and, well, you get the picture.

Dr. Fauci has warned that large gatherings during the holiday season could lead to “a surge superimposed upon that surge that we’re already in.” The pandemic demands personal sacrifices—which in turn leads to COVID induced malaise. I’ve personally RSVP’d “No” to a couple of family weddings—because the health and safety of my family matters more than joining them for a round of the “Cha Cha Slide.”

We must listen to public health experts. As I write this, the United States has more than 14.2 million COVID-19 cases and 275,000 deaths. These sad statistics will increase throughout the holiday season. Here are some ways you can combat COVID-19 Caution Fatigue:

  • Build a new routine. Find new and safe ways to move, interact with people, and entertain.
  • Healthy behaviors: focus on nutrient dense food, get adequate sleep, and limit alcohol use.
  • Journal: reflect on all that you’ve endured this year. A lot of us have been pushed to grow, expand, and adjust in unexpected ways. Focus on how far you’ve come, how resilient you are, and keep pushing.
  • Limit sreen time: For those of us working from home, it’s become increasingly tricky to maintain a work-life balance. Try to log off at a set time every day and take a break from screens in general (phone, TV, computer) and find ways to decompress from your day.
  • Personal improvement: Use time that would’ve been spent socializing on cultivating a new hobby. Take a free online course to learn a new concept. I personally like Coursera. Or learn a new language through mobile apps like Duolingo.
  • Prioritize self-care. Practice guided meditations via mobile apps like Headspace, read, or even start virtual therapy to process your emotions, through services like Talkspace.

In recognition of the emotional toll of social distancing, the CDC has issued guidelines on how to cope during the holidays. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps several COVID-19 vaccines will be available in the coming months. That said, we have a long way to go, as the demand for the vaccine will far exceed its supply for many months. Remain vigilant and continue to adhere to pandemic-related safety guidelines. Our collective efforts will keep us safe while the vaccines become available across many demographics. Let’s continue to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe through care and precautions against COVID-19. Mask up, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands frequently, and avoid large gatherings. Happy and safe holidays to all!

NCL statement on vaccine for COVID-19

For immediate release: November 12, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC –The National Consumers League (NCL) welcomes the very hopeful news that a coronavirus vaccine with a reported efficacy rate of 90 percent may be approved and rolled out in the next few months. NCL has historically advocated for vaccines because they have overwhelming effectiveness and safety profiles, preventing billions of often debilitating and deadly diseases across the globe—from small pox to measles to polio. The clinical evidence on the coronavirus vaccine—developed by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE—though incomplete at the moment, is very promising.

“We applaud the unprecedented cooperation by public and private entities, along with concerted coordination among scientists, doctors, and researchers that has gone into developing a vaccine to combat this terrible pandemic, which has killed over 237,000 Americans, struck 10 million people, and only shows signs of worsening over the winter months,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “As this vaccine moves closer to being cleared for widespread use and the safety data verified, we are grateful to the companies and government officials who urgently prioritized the development of an effective and safe vaccine to combat the scourge of COVID-19. We are also encouraged that other companies are in the later stages of reviewing their own COVID-19 vaccines, which use different technologies to fight the virus but hopefully will be effective and safe as well.”

The FDA will be reviewing the safety data in the next few weeks on the Pfizer vaccine and will then determine to whom the first doses will be directed. Pfizer has said the vaccine could become available before the end of the year and that the company can produce 50 million doses globally—equivalent to reaching 25 million people because two doses are required for maximum protection from the virus. The most vulnerable populations are likely to receive the first batch of vaccines.

NCL cautioned consumers that during this period, people should maintain all the safety practices for preventing spread of the virus—wearing masks and practicing social distancing and keeping social gatherings to a minimum.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

For patients’ safety, it’s time Congress updated rules governing the $10 billion contact lens industry

Contact lenses have come a long way since they were first introduced around 70 years ago.  Today, roughly 45 million Americans rely on them for safe, affordable vision correction each year.  But along the way, federal regulation of the contact lens market has not kept pace with the changing way Americans purchase and rely on these medical devices.  The result is that thousands of American consumers are at risk each year of adverse eye health outcomes including keratitis, corneal scarring, corneal ulcers, and infection.

Under federal law, online contact lens retailers do not require patients to provide their prescriptions before ordering contact lenses.  Patients can simply tell the retailer the lenses the doctor prescribed for them and the retailer then must verify the prescription with the prescribing doctor.  As required by the Federal Trade Commission’s Contact Lens Rule (“Rule”), contact lens-prescribing doctors have eight hours to respond to an online sellers’ verification communication before the contact lenses are sent to patients. If they don’t respond, the online contact lens seller can ship the products, regardless of the fact that prescription accuracy hasn’t yet been verified. Since the Rule was implemented in the mid-1990s, before the adoption of email, many sellers used automated telephone calls, or so-called “robocalls,” to fulfill the verification requirement of the Rule.

These automated robocalls use computer-generated voices.  They are often inaudible.  They frequently contain incomplete patient information, and, in practice, these robocalls are sent via computer at all hours of the day and night without noting any call back number to correct errors. This cumbersome process makes it nearly impossible for eye doctors to properly verify contact lens prescriptions.  In fact, this prescription verification system can lead to the shipment of incorrect contact lenses to patients with potentially dangerous consequences for patient vision health and safety.

As many consumers can attest from being bombarded with marketing robocalls, making sense of them is a nightmare. Using robocalls to verify important patient information, for the reasons previously outlined, is unsafe.

Current technology is capable of far better than this robocall system, especially due to the various forms of electronic communication we use today. These technologies can produce receipts, notify consumers of product shipments, and share product alerts and updates. Electronic communication is far more reliable and effective because it’s inexpensive, easy to understand, accessible.  It also creates a verifiable paper trail.  Therefore, we believe sellers of contact lenses should be required to use email or other forms of electronic communication, not automated robocalls, to keep consumers safe.

The FTC’s revised Contact Lens Rule also adds a cumbersome paperwork requirement that consumers and eye doctors need to complete at the end of a contact lens exam and fitting. Under this rule, prescribers must collect and store a so-called signed acknowledgment form in which a patient verifies that they received a copy of their prescription, as is already required under federal law.

That’s all well and good, but we believe a far better system to inform contact lens patients of their rights would be to require prescribers to post a sign in their offices, which is clear and conspicuous, noting that patients have a right to a copy of their contact lens prescription at the completion of their contact lens fitting. This type of posted signage is already mandatory in California, seems to be working well there, and we think it should be emulated on the federal level.

That’s a better solution because like many other forms consumers and patients are asked to sign, consumers probably won’t take time to read the form and thus won’t understand what they are signing; this is an ineffective exercise, in our view, and will result in more paperwork without necessarily ensuring patients have access to their prescriptions as the law intends.

In short, it’s time for Congress to update the rules governing this important, $10 billion industry.  It should start by requiring the use of the latest technologies—not robocalls—to get consumers the information they need about their eye prescriptions and that those prescriptions are verified as accurate by their eye professionals.

What you should know about the Healthcare.gov Open Enrollment

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

From November 1, 2020 to December 15, 2020, consumers will be able to enroll in health coverage through the health insurance marketplace, Healthcare.gov. Choosing the right health plan involves thoughtful decision-making, with careful consideration of your needs and your budget. COVID-19 testing and treatment, telehealth, and mental health services have been vital pandemic necessities, and consumers are advised to pay attention to any changes in their current health plans to account for any adjustments in health needs.

It is estimated that annually consumers typically spend 17 minutes when selecting plan options during open enrollment, most simply sticking with their plans from the previous year. If you need assistance navigating the health insurance marketplace, you can consult a healthcare navigator to help in comparing the coverage options that make sense for you. Healthcare navigators provide free, unbiased advice and offer services in a number of languages. To find a navigator in your area, please click here.

Even with the election and looming challenge to the ACA coming before the Supreme Court, California v. Texas, consumers should know that the federal health insurance marketplace, also known as Obamacare, is still available. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on November 10, but the ultimate decision can come as late as June 2021. We’ve written more about the implications of California v. Texas here. Despite multiple attempts by opponents to repeal the ACA, over 20 million people have gained coverage through the marketplace in the past decade.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that marketplace premiums have dropped by 2 percent nationally. Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, the marketplace has seen greater insurer participation – in turn, offering consumers with more robust options for coverage. Plans offered via Healthcare.gov are required to cover a set of essential health benefits mandated by the ACA, ensuring that you have access to comprehensive care – a provision that is of chief importance during this time. The ACA has afforded consumers with a host of health protections and prohibits insurance plans from discriminating against enrollees based on health status, including pre-existing conditions. To learn more about the marketplace, click here.

The National Consumers League encourages consumers to seek coverage via ACA compliant plans offered on the marketplace. If you miss the deadline to apply for coverage within the open enrollment period, you may be able to qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). Applying during a SEP is contingent upon meeting certain criteria, such as life events like having a child or losing health coverage. If you qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), you can apply at any time. Most importantly, in order to have coverage that is effective by January 1, 2021, you must sign up by December 15, 2020.