Vaccine bill passes House with full philosophical exemption
by Alan Panebaker vtdigger.org In a landslide, the House voted Thursday to continue allowing parents to use a philosophical exemption to opt out of vaccinating their children.
The conference report will have to pass the Senate again before it becomes law. If the Senate rejects it, the bill will fail, and the philosophical exemption will remain intact.
Requirements such as an annual sign-off by parents recognizing the risk to the community were retained. Schools will be required to produce aggregated immunization rates, and the state will convene a working group on how to protect students with health issues that prevent them from getting vaccinated, including allowing them to enroll in different districts with higher immunization rates.
Rep. Mike Fisher. VTD/Catherine Hughes
The 133-6 vote to approve the conference report marked a shift from Wednesday when House Health Care Committee Chair Mike Fisher asked to postpone a vote since he did not have the votes to pass the compromise.
Earlier this session, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to remove the philosophical exemption based, in part, on the state’s below average vaccination rate. The House kept the exemption but added more reporting requirements. Members of the House and Senate worked to iron out an agreement to reconcile their conflicting bills.
The first agreement struck by a conference committee would have suspended use of the exemption for certain vaccines if immunization rates dropped below 90 percent. That did not sit well with many representatives, and Fisher asked for more time. After a late-afternoon meeting Wednesday, the conference committee brought out the new report, which did not include the 90-percent trigger for certain vaccines.
“I believed we could claw and scrape our way to a majority vote,” Fisher said. “It just wasn’t worth it. The core of the bill was acceptable, and I thought fairly minor changes would make it acceptable to a wider majority.”
Since 1979 Vermont has allowed parents to opt out of vaccinations for philosophical as well as religious or health reasons. Fisher has worked on the issue for a large part of the legislative session. For him, and other lawmakers, the decision whether to remove that right was a difficult balance between parental rights and public health.
“It really is a good puzzle and a great discussion about where individual rights should begin and end and where community protection and public health begins and ends,” he said.
As a parent, Fisher said, he decided to slow down vaccination schedules for his children. Looking at the issue from a public health standpoint, he said, he veered more toward the idea of requiring more immunizations.
“Most people look at this from the perspective of their child,” he said. “It’s a whole different calculation when you look at the whole population of children in Vermont.”
A group of parents called the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice was a driving force in lobbying to keep the philosophical exemption.
Jennifer Stella, one of the leaders of the group, said she is relatively happy with the newer compromise. More independent research on the health effects of vaccines is needed, she said. The group claims unvaccinated children are not causing health problems, but the side effects of some vaccines are. They plan to continue working on the issue.
While the House-passed version of the conference report was better than the first version, she said there are still some kinks.
For one, requiring parents to sign a statement each year saying they have reviewed material outlining the risks of not vaccinating their children and the risks to others seemed like a jab.
“Parents who use the philosophical exemption truly believe they are making the best possible medical decisions for their children,” she said. “To ask them to sign a statement that is denigrating this approach is definitely unfavorable for parents.”