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Moderna announced a free COVID vaccine program. But will that be accessible enough?

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Once the government's COVID vaccine supply runs out, the shots will be available on the commercial market. But they won't be cheap. And facing political pressure, Moderna announced a free shot program for those without insurance. But NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin reports on how these programs can be cumbersome and give drugmakers cover to keep their prices high.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Moderna announced a patient assistance program right as pressure on Capitol Hill was ramping up over the price it plans to charge for its COVID-19 vaccine. The federal government paid around $10 billion to develop and purchase Moderna's vaccine as part of Operation Warp Speed. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent now at the helm of the Senate HELP committee, said this on the Senate floor last month.

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BERNIE SANDERS: How has the CEO thanked the taxpayers of America for the huge profits that Moderna has experienced and for the incredible wealth that he and his other executives have experienced? Well, he is thanking them by proposing to quadruple the price of the COVID vaccine to about $130 once the government's stockpile runs out.

LUPKIN: The HELP committee will question Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel in a few weeks. The company says it will provide the vaccines to uninsured or underinsured patients at no cost. This patient assistance program is set to begin in May. Moderna's move is politically savvy, says Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

LARRY LEVITT: This gives Bancel a talking point when he appears before Bernie Sanders. I think it blunts the criticism, but I think there will still be plenty of criticism.

LUPKIN: Patient assistance programs have long been part of the drug industry playbook. They allow companies to maintain high prices while diffusing some of the criticism, but patients have to jump through hoops to get free or discounted pharmaceutical products. Claire Hannan, head of the Association of Immunization Managers, says paperwork and red tape can be a real problem.

CLAIRE HANNAN: I think people are willing to push through that if they need to get a drug, but with the vaccine, you really have to make that accessible and convenient for people to get it.

LUPKIN: If they're not sick, the urgency just isn't the same. Patients who are taking expensive drugs for cancer treatment or chronic conditions may face hundreds or thousands of dollars in drug costs over time, so it's worth it to go through even a complicated application process. But if it's not easy to apply for Moderna's free vaccines, people could decide not to bother, says Levitt.

LEVITT: We are having trouble getting people vaccinated and boosted. And people who are uninsured are the least likely to be vaccinated. So this is already a very hard to reach group and it's going to get harder even with this patient assistance program.

LUPKIN: Ultimately, it's better than nothing. But he says he has no doubt uninsured people will get vaccinated at lower rates in the future. I asked CVS and Walgreens whether they had plans to help patients navigate the Moderna patient assistance program, since a lot of people get vaccinated at pharmacies. CVS said it didn't have anything to share right now. Walgreens did not respond. Hannan says for local clinics and health departments to be able to participate, there are two obstacles - buying the vaccine, so it's there when patients ask for it, and having staff to handle paperwork.

HANNAN: Purchasing that initial stock can be a challenge if they don't have vaccines, so hopefully Moderna is willing to provide that.

LUPKIN: It's not a surprise that the vaccine's price is about to go up. The time for the government to drive a hard bargain on future pricing would have been in 2020, when Operation Warp Speed was negotiating vaccine development and purchase contracts with drugmakers including Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and others. Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International says the government didn't do a great job.

JAMIE LOVE: It was all short-term thinking, and it came out of a period when the government was also kind of reluctant to even say anything about prices.

LUPKIN: And that set the stage for what we're seeing now, he says.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.