Opinion: Don’t limit seniors’ immunization access

Ryan Cowmeadow
The public health of our communities depends on high immunization rates to protect us from serious diseases, Lauter writes.

Vaccines aren’t just for kids. The truth is, they’re saving adult lives – especially older adults — every day, too, but a discussion happening in a key federal government committee could lead to higher infection rates for one particular (and particularly deadly) disease.

Eighteen thousand older adults die each year from pneumonia, but they don’t have to. Pneumonia is a vaccine-preventable disease, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all adults 65 and older get immunized with two separate vaccines to keep them safe and healthy.

Despite the availability of safe and proven preventative measures and those CDC recommendations, influenza and pneumonia remain the eighth largest cause of death in the United States, and roughly a million people contract pneumonia each year. 

Those numbers could go up, if a key federal health care committee changes its recommendations at their next meeting in June. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, has discussed during recent meetings the idea of changing its recommendation that older adults be vaccinated against this deadly disease.

Already, 40% of seniors are not vaccinated against pneumonia, contributing greatly to its easy and common spread, and a change in ACIP’s recommendation would almost certainly drive those rates higher. That’s because ACIP’s recommendations influence coverage decisions by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and other third party payers in the health care system. Removing – or even tightening – their recommendation would almost certainly leave many Michigan seniors without access to simple and effective prevention measures.

That’s hardly the right approach in the battle against a disease that the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases has identified as the number one cause of serious illness across the globe.

Less access to immunizations for older Michiganians won’t just mean more illness and more lives lost.  Less access to prevention will also lead to higher hospitalization rates, higher health care spending, and greater costs born across the health insurance pool. In other words, everyone’s rates are on the line.

One study by the University of North Carolina found that unvaccinated adults impact the national economy to the tune of $7.1 billion per year. Nearly $2 billion of that cost is directly attributed to older adults who contract pneumococcal disease. Yanking seniors’ access to the vaccine will only drive those costs higher.

Area Agencies on Aging across the state work night and day to meet the needs of Michigan’s older adults, and to connect them with the care and services they need to live healthy, productive, and independent lives.

We help seniors and their families find the programs, information and resources they need.  We see each and every day the impact of illnesses like pneumonia, and we see firsthand the importance of prevention and access to quality health care. We encounter and help older Michigan residents overcome serious barriers to access for food, medicine, transportation and more. The men and women who built our state and who sacrificed to nurture our families count on each of us now, to ensure they get a fair shake.  

ACIP would be wise to reject the dangerous push to limit these individuals’ access to life saving preventative care.

Ryan Cowmeadow is executive director of Area Agencies on Aging Association of Michigan.