The House Committee on Health Care marked a significant policy shift Tuesday, when a majority of the committee said it would oppose removing a philosophical exemption for parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.
Five of eight members said in a straw poll Tuesday morning that they were opposed to removing the exemption.
A bill in the Senate that would remove the exemption passed with an overwhelming majority earlier this session. But the bill saw fierce debate in the House, and on Thursday night a compromise that would have kept the exemption failed on a tie vote. It is unclear at this point whether it will make it to the House floor.
Proponents of removing the exemption say it will serve the public good by ensuring adequate numbers of children in the state are vaccinated.
Opponents of the Senate bill, including a coalition of parents, say the fears that not enough children in Vermont are vaccinated are blown out of proportion, and removing the exemption would take away parental choice.
Under the Senate bill, if parents did not vaccinate their children and did not qualify for a medical or religious exemption, they would not be able to enroll in school. Vermont is one of 20 states that allow for the so-called philosophical exemption.
The committee considered a compromise of sorts Tuesday, where schools would identify how many children were not vaccinated.
Rep. Jim Eckhardt, who opposes removing the exemption, said the Senate version of the bill would mean kids who are just missing one vaccine could not go to school.
“A lot of these kids are partially immunized and working toward full immunization; they just haven’t gotten there,” Eckhardt said. “I don’t see a big enough problem to make such a drastic change.”
Rep. George Till, a medical doctor who introduced a separate bill that would remove the philosophical exemption, said his concern is with kids getting sick at school.
“I feel like the central question is the level of risk unvaccinated kids bring to school,” Till said.
If the House bill passes with the philosophical exemption intact, it would likely go to a conference committee where members of the House and Senate committees could reconcile the differences between the two. Rep. Mike Fisher, the committee chair and one of three members who support removing the exemption, would most certainly be on the committee. Only one member of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, Anthony Pollina, voted against the bill on the other side of the Legislature.
Fisher, who used the philosophical exemption for his own child, supports removing it now, along with Rep. Leigh Dakin and Till. Fisher said his change of heart came from looking at the issue through the lens of public policy.
“The question for me is an entirely different question from a public policy standpoint as it is for an individual parent,” Fisher said.
Another proposal by Gov. Peter Shumlin and Department of Health Commissioner Harry Chen got lukewarm reactions.
Under the proposal, parents could only use a philosophical exemption if a doctor signed a form saying he or she had educated the patient about the risks.
Chen said, “The governor and I are in support of ensuring parents have the appropriate education and consultation.”
But Till said the idea wouldn’t sit with pediatricians.
“I urge you not to go down that route of trying to force docs to do something they really believe they should not do,” Till said.
He said pediatricians are generally against allowing parents to opt out of vaccinations using the exemption, and it would be against their ethics to sign off on the parents’ choice not to vaccinate their children.
Parents who want to keep the philosophical exemption say the proposal to make public the number of children in schools who are unvaccinated could have unintended consequences.
Jennifer Stella, leader of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, said the proposal “would be stirring up fear mongering to divide our communities.”
The compromise to make public the number of children in a school who are unvaccinated, Stella said, could lead some parents to move their children to a different school.
“You can’t assume that an unvaccinated child is a pocket of contagion we need to worry about,” she said. “That’s discrimination.”
Stella, who has worked persistently to organize parents who want to keep the philosophical exemption, said she hoped the bill would die in committee.
She said she thinks lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies are attempting to influence the legislation in order to ensure more children are vaccinated, and they make more money.
Rep. Leigh Dakin, a member of the committee who is also a school nurse, said people want to know that information, in a similar manner that they would want to know if a child in a class has a peanut allergy to ensure that someone doesn’t bring snacks into the class that would make the child sick. In both cases, the child’s identification is not divulged.
“It seems like a backdoor way of getting to the unimmunized. I don’t like it,” he said.
Eckhardt said parents could send kids to another school if children in their school have a high rate of unimmunized students.
“It’s a way to get more public outcry to come to this body to control immunizations,” he said.
The bill should head to the House floor later this week.