Protecting our keiki and kupuna with free vaccine

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Every fall between October 15 and December 7, millions of Americans sit down at their kitchen tables to decide which Medicare prescription drug plan (Part D) they should choose to cover their medications. For many, it is an agonizing process. This year, there will be one less cost to worry about, vaccines.

Thanks to Senator Hirono’s efforts to include the Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act in the IRA, CDC-recommended vaccines – like the Shingles Vaccine – that once cost some seniors as much as $160 will now be available free of charge. Countless Americans will avoid getting sick or dying from diseases that a simple shot could prevent. Our economy could get a boost, too: Not only will adults be protected from significant health care expenses associated with these diseases, but the U.S. could also save billions in treatment costs. 

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Each year, thousands of adults die and thousands more suffer serious health problems from vaccine-preventable diseases like the Covid-19, flu, pneumonia, shingles, and tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (or whooping cough) – due in part to the complicated and costly landscape faced by Medicare and Medicaid recipients. These inequities in vaccine coverage have hindered our nation’s disease prevention efforts and put millions of Americans needlessly at risk. 

Nothing like a free vaccine…

By removing these cost barriers, this new law closes longstanding gaps in vaccine coverage for Medicare Part D recipients. Currently, two-thirds of adults in the U.S. have access to vaccines through their workplaces, military benefits, or federal health care programs. But that leaves over 100 million Americans – predominantly older adults, adults with low incomes, adults in underserved communities, adults with disabilities or other chronic conditions, and people of color – unable to access life-saving vaccines. 

Vaccines are especially important for older adults because a healthy person’s ability to fight off infection weakens over time. Adults aged 50 and over are particularly susceptible to vaccine-preventable disease, and they account for a disproportionate number of serious illnesses and deaths.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done much to expose and exacerbate the health disparities facing millions of Americans, but it also showed the undeniable benefits of a no-cost immunization campaign. Our country’s health depends on all of us doing our part to curtail the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases. 

This is an investment in the future health, wellbeing, and economic security of our seniors – and it wouldn’t have been possible without its champions like Mazie Hirono. 

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Dr. Willcox is Principal Investigator of the National Institute on Aging-funded Kuakini Hawaii Lifespan Study and Kuakini Hawaii Healthspan Study, which are ancillary studies on aging from the Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program. He is also Professor and Director of Research at the Department of Geriatric Medicine, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii, located on the Kuakini Health System campus. He  is the Co-Principal Investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study and has been investigating mechanisms of aging for almost two decades with this study. 

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