Baby Compensation Lack: The Biden administration seeks to help WIC families

About half of the infant formula in the United States is purchased by those who use federal WIC benefits, which allow them to receive the infant formula for free, but limit the type, size and brand they can choose.

Approximately 1.2 million infants participate in the WIC program, formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for women, infants and children. Each state has a contract with a single manufacturer. Abbott Nutrition, which is struggling with a massive recall of the formula, is the exclusive supplier to about half of infants in WIC.
The recall from February has exacerbated the shortage caused by ongoing supply chain problems, leaving all parents with fewer choices in many stores. President Joe Biden has been criticized for not addressing the issue earlier and for taking limited action.

On Friday, the US Department of Agriculture outlined the steps it has already taken to help low-income families, mainly by granting exemptions to states to give parents using WIC benefits a wider range of options – if they can find other brands on the shelves and babies their can easily change formula.

Authorized since February, the exemptions allow families to purchase alternative container sizes, including those that exceed typical maximum values, and forms of formula, as well as to purchase alternative brands without doctor’s notes. The flexibility allows parents to get liquid concentrate or ready-to-eat formula, instead of just powdered.

A third type of waiver allows stores to accept exchanges of formula purchased with WIC benefits.

The agency urged all states to take advantage of the flexibility, in line with a call from the White House on Thursday. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Friday sent a letter to state health commissioners reiterating the exemptions available.

Most states use all three exemptions, but Michigan uses two and Illinois uses none. Ten states and Puerto Rico use one exemption.

The exemptions help alleviate some of the pressure on low-income families, said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group.

“Parents want the opportunity to choose the formula that is available, as opposed to just being able to get the formula that is not on the shelf,” she said.

Abbott, meanwhile, pays rebates through August on competitors’ products in states where WIC families are restricted from buying the formula. It will allow parents to get the formula for free regardless of manufacturer. It also manages supplies from a production facility in Ireland to serve WIC families.

Abbott and Gerber increase production

Abbott said Friday that they are working to increase supply with formula by increasing production at other plants. Since February, the company says, it has imported “millions of cans” of powdered infant formula to the United States from its plant in Cootehill, Ireland. It has also converted other production lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to create a more liquid Similac formula that is ready to feed.

In addition, the company says it offers more generous coupons so consumers can buy the products at a discounted price.

Meanwhile, Gerber said it has accelerated efforts to produce more baby replacements. It is a self-described “small player” in the market.

“We have significantly increased the amount of our infant formula available to consumers by increasing production and accelerating overall product availability to retailers and online, as well as in hospitals for the most vulnerable,” a Gerber spokesman told CNN on Friday.

CNN’s Brenda Goodman and Jen Christensen contributed to this story.

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