WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to spend more than $1 billion on a new program that offers free coronavirus vaccinations to uninsured Americans after the vaccines go on the commercial market later this year, administration officials said Tuesday.
The program for the uninsured, which will be modeled in part on the existing childhood vaccination program and will cover an estimated 30 million people, will include a first-of-its-kind partnership with pharmacy chains in which the government will cover the administrative costs of administering doses to patients. Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to offer the shots for free to those without insurance.
The administration’s move partially addresses a critical gap in the nation’s coronavirus vaccination strategy ahead of a new booster campaign with reformulated doses likely to begin as early as late summer. Federal officials have said they no longer plan to buy doses for all Americans, as they did in previous coronavirus vaccination campaigns, allowing vaccines to be sold commercially and ceding power to manufacturers to set their own prices.
For the new program, the administration is counting on significant help from vaccine companies. In February, Moderna said it would use a so-called Patient Assistance Program to provide benefits for free to uninsured Americans. Pfizer plans to offer free vaccines through a similar program, a company spokeswoman said.
The details of these programs are still being worked out. Jennifer Kates, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said drug company assistance programs vary by company and drug, creating a patchwork system that can be complicated and inaccessible. Companies often ask for proof of income or proof that the patient is uninsured, said Dr. Kates, and it’s unclear how long the drugmakers’ programs can last.
“It’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “The problem is that they are not mandatory or sure bets. It’s a voluntary effort by companies.”
But Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s secretary of health and human services, said it’s in the companies’ best interest to keep the programs going.
“It’s their business sense,” Mr. Becerra said in an interview. “The last thing they want is to be ridiculed because people say, ‘What gives? All of a sudden we have to pay to get this vaccine?”
The new vaccination initiative comes as the administration looks beyond a public health emergency related to the coronavirus that was declared under President Donald J. Trump in 2020 and extended under Mr. Biden. Management plans to allow the state of emergency expires May 11thus directing the nation to treat Covid-19 as just another respiratory illness like the flu.
The new initiative will also cover some of the costs associated with Covid-19 treatment for the uninsured. In addition, the administration is working on a $5 billion program to support next-generation vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.
“Covid is not over,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, White House coronavirus response coordinator. “And as we transition from a public health emergency and all the flexibility it provides, we are committed to ensuring that we continue to fight Covid. And that means making sure people have access to vaccines, treatments and tests.”
The end of the public health emergency will have no immediate impact on Americans’ ability to access coronavirus vaccines. For now, people can still shoot for free from stockpiles of rations that the federal government has already purchased. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the second updated booster shot for people over 65 or people with weakened immunity.
In June, federal regulators are expected to choose a new formulation for use in the next round of booster shots later in the year, around the time people get their annual flu shots.
As part of a new initiative called the HHS Bridge Access Program for Covid-19 Vaccines and Treatments, federal officials will also purchase vaccines and distribute them to state and local health authorities to get them to the uninsured.
When coronavirus vaccines move to the commercial market, Pfizer and Moderna say they plan to charge over $100 per doseor roughly four to five times the price the federal government paid for the company’s shots in the last endorsement campaign. Dr. Jha said White House officials “don’t think such a price increase is justifiable.”
But Mr. Becerra conceded there was little the administration could do. “We don’t control the commercial market,” he said.
For most Americans, the reformulated shots will have no out-of-pocket costs later this year. They are covered by most private health plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. The cost of benefits for uninsured children will be covered by the federal agency Vaccine Program for Children.
The Biden administration has proposed creating a program called Vaccines for Adults that would mimic the concept used for uninsured children. However, administration officials have been unable to convince lawmakers to establish such an initiative.