A Tribute to Senator Dale Bumpers; Staunch Advocate for Public Health
By Amy Pisani, Executive Director of Every Child By Two
Dale Bumpers passed away on New Year’s Day, 2016. He will be remembered by many as a staunch advocate for civil rights, a defender of the constitution and one of the greatest orators in the history of the Senate. But for those of us who dedicate our lives to public health, he will be best known for the role he played in helping to save the lives of millions of children throughout the world.
For most parents in America today, having our children vaccinated has become a rite of passage. Nearly all insurance companies cover vaccines at no cost to families. For the economically disadvantaged, underinsured and uninsured, vaccines are free of charge, and finding a delivery site and/or provider is fairly simple.
In 1925, the birth year of Former Senator Dale Bumpers, this was hardly the case. Instead, families suffered the devastating effects of diseases including polio, measles, rubella and diphtheria, which regularly killed or maimed children. In the small town of Charleston, Arkansas, where Dale Bumpers was raised, childhood illnesses were the rite of passage and while vaccines would be licensed decades later, healthcare delivery remained fragmented until he and others took the lead years later.
While deadly diseases were fairly commonplace in the pre-vaccine era, a strategic battle to defeat them was brewing. This battle would have many heroes including the incredible scientists who develop vaccines and the dedicated public health workers who travel to the far corners of the earth delivering vaccines. Yet, there are two public servants whose names may not be as well-known as that of Jonas Salk, but who deserve a great deal of credit in the fight against communicable diseases. In a rural town of Charleston, Arkansas in 1949 a small town lawyer named Dale Bumpers married his high school sweetheart, Betty Flanagan Bumpers. This ‘dynamic duo’ would soon take reign and become public health heroes.
Back in the 1960s, as polio and measles vaccines were becoming available, the demand was high for a medicine that had the potential to save children from lifelong disability and death. As each new vaccine was developed and licensed, campaigns were established to vaccinate the children of the U.S., yet there was little to no organized method to ensure that all children were being offered protection from diseases that were devastating families in every town throughout America.
Betty Bumpers often reminisced about her childhood in Arkansas where she saw family after family lose loved ones to diseases including diphtheria. She credited her mother with her family’s good health. She understood the importance of good hygiene to stave off illnesses and insisted on hand washing. She also taught Betty the method of pouring boiled water over the dishes after they were cleaned. Later, as an art teacher in her public school system, Betty sadly recalled how many of her students fell ill from polio and diphtheria and how it had influenced her to make vaccinations her life’s work.
When Dale Bumpers became the Governor of Arkansas in 1970, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approached First Lady Betty Bumpers to request her participation in childhood immunization efforts. As a board member of the Arkansas Visiting Nurse association, Betty had a real understanding of the unmet needs of her community. She created a coalition of leaders from every organization and government entity that dealt with children’s health and wellbeing in Arkansas and made incredible strides raising the immunization rates of her home state.
During his four years in office, Governor Bumpers made significant strides in improving healthcare throughout Arkansas. He expanded enrollment in the state medical school, created loan-forgiveness programs for medical students who spent five years practicing in rural towns, established regional residency programs to distribute young doctors across underserved parts of the state and expanded prescription writing privileges to osteopaths statewide, all in an effort to ensure that healthcare was accessible to the entire state.
Following his 1975 election, Dale was elected to the U.S. Senate, and upon arriving in Washington made childhood immunization policies a priority throughout his 24 year career in Congress. Learning how to
galvanize political leaders and gaining insight into the inner workings of public and private healthcare at the state level had helped prepare the Bumpers for the national battle against preventable diseases and both Dale and Betty Bumpers were instrumental in shaping and fortifying the infrastructure of today’s national immunization program.
Thankfully, the U.S. no longer has a fragmented, underfunded system of vaccinating children. However, in 1976 the budget for immunization had been cut to $4.96 million from $6.2 million and the country was in the midst of a major measles outbreak. It was Dale Bumpers who took the reins and during the two decades he spent as a member of Congress and as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he helped his colleagues understand the impact that congressional funding cuts had on disease prevention.
It was early in the Carter Administration when Betty Bumpers forged what would become a lifelong partnership with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Early in the Administration Betty and Rosalynn began working closely with Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (now HHS) to develop the Childhood Immunization Initiative of 1977. As a result, Congressional funding was increased to nearly $13 million dollars and while Senator Bumpers fought for federal grants for state outreach programs that would help improve the vaccine delivery infrastructure and help purchase vaccines, Betty Bumpers and Rosalynn Carter were working with the governor’s wives network to pass laws in all 50 states that would require vaccinations for school entry. Today, such laws exist in every state and have resulted in 95% of U.S. children being vaccinated against many preventable diseases by the age of five each year.
When measles spread across the country again in 1989-1991, Senator Bumpers rallied Congress to address what he called a “shameful and totally avoidable” epidemic. He fought for funds to quell the outbreaks, but also for ongoing funds to shore up the infrastructure in states throughout the nation. That same outbreak spurred the formation of Carter and Bumpers’ organization, Every Child By Two, whose mission for the past twenty-five years has been to ensure that all children are vaccinated with the primary series of vaccines by age two.
The Bumpers legacy continued as they provided significant guidance to President Bill Clinton. Within weeks of his inauguration, he announced a comprehensive childhood immunization initiative designed to improve universal access to immunization services by helping to remove financial barriers that impede children from being immunized at the appropriate age. The President requested $300 million for Fiscal Year 1993 to reinforce the nation’s immunization infrastructure by providing funding for communities to extend clinic hours, provide more staff, increase information and education efforts and improve the planning and implementation of a national immunization tracking system (Immunization Information Systems). In its Fiscal 1994 budget request, the Administration asked for a doubling of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization program funding to $667 million.
The Vaccines for Children Program was also established during the Clinton Administration. This entitlement program provides childhood vaccines to states for free distribution to health care providers who serve children enrolled in Medicaid or whose health insurance does not cover immunization services. In these cases, providers could not charge for the vaccine but could recover an administrative fee. This program has been credited as one of the greatest achievements in public health, as it has removed cost as a barrier to immunization and has incentivized private providers to vaccinate children rather than sending them to health departments, which has a tendency to further fragment their care.
Senator Bumpers was also known as a staunch advocate for global polio and measles eradication funding. Dr. Orenstein, who led the CDC’s National Immunization program during much of the Senator’s tenure in office, noted the following:
“Dale Bumpers’ grasp of the subject was so impressive…he has made himself into a technical expert…I can talk to him as if he were a professional colleague. It’s invaluable having someone that knowledgeable in the Senate.”
Perhaps the most moving tribute to the contributions of both Senator Bumpers and Every Child By Two Co-founder Betty Bumpers was the naming of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This honor was bestowed upon the Bumpers for championing the National Institutes of Health, and advocating for funds to fight HIV/AIDS. The Senator’s support for appropriations for NIH helped answer fundamental questions about HIV/AIDS, and also supported research and development activities on vaccines.
As we mourn the loss of our co-founder’s husband, former Senator Dale Bumpers, we would like to reflect on his legacy and honor the contributions he and his wife have made to our nation’s immunization policies. Dale was a wonderful, caring man who dedicated his life to public service and he will be truly missed.
Following Senator Bumper’s passing, the family issued the following statement:
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father and husband, Senator Dale Bumpers He passed away Friday night, January 1, in his home surrounded by our family. We want to thank his many friends and colleagues who have supported him and us over the years. While most people knew him as a great governor, senator and public servant, we remember him best as a loving father and husband who gave us unconditional love and support and whose life provided wonderful guidance on how to be a compassionate and productive person.”
Read the official obituary
For more coverage of the life and legacy of Senator Dale Bumpers, please refer to these other informative articles: