Five of six members of a House-Senate conference committee signed a report Monday that would allow parents to continue to exercise a “philosophical exemption” to opt not to have their children vaccinated for certain diseases.
However, the compromise didn’t seem to make anyone happy.
Vermont is one of a minority of states that allows for the exemption; it also allows exemptions for religious and health reasons.
But earlier this session, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strip that part of the law, based in large part on the state’s dipping vaccination rates.
Then the House voted overwhelmingly to keep the exemption.
The compromise bill stipulates that if rates for certain immunizations, such as measles, drop below 90 percent, the commissioner of the Department of Health would suspend use of the philosophical exemption for that vaccine.
Rep. George Till, the only medical doctor in the House, signed the report, but he said he did not think it went far enough.
“It’s a very, very small step, and it doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect the kids of Vermont,” he said. “It’s an abdication of our responsibility to our kids. We let a very vocal minority rule to the detriment of Vermonters in general.”
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell refused to sign the report. He was sitting on the conference committee as a substitute for Sen. Sally Fox.
“I cannot in all good conscience sign a report when I deeply feel we are putting our children at risk,” Campbell said. “When you look at the numbers for me I think you’re going to expose children to diseases that are clearly preventable. Some parents are afraid of potential harm vaccination may cause their child. I find it a little disturbing that we don’t care about the rest of the children.”
Sixty percent of Vermont children 19 to 35 months old are “adequately vaccinated,” according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
Some parents say the bill compromise goes too far.
Jennifer Stella organized the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice this legislative session. She said the 90-percent threshold in the compromise bill limits parents’ right to use the philosophical exemption.
“It basically says that only 10 percent of Vermonters get to use that right,” she said.
Stella has a petition with more than 1,500 signatures of residents who want to keep the philosophical exemption. She said Gov. Peter Shumlin supports their cause, and she is calling him out to veto the bill.
In an April 18 press conference, Shumlin said he thought the House passed a thoughtful bill.
“I do not believe that, in the end, the government should dictate to parents what inoculations their children should get,” he said.
Dr. Harry Chen, Shumlin’s commissioner of Health, supports removing the philosophical exemption.
The issue turned into one of the most contentious of the legislative session. On the one hand, parents whose children allegedly have been injured by vaccines say the exemption allows parents to make an informed decision. Some say the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied successfully to convince society that all children need to be vaccinated for every disease possible.
The established medical community says immunizations are a public health issue and that unvaccinated children can pose a health risk, particularly to children with compromised immune systems.
Because the threshold for suspending the exemption is based on a statewide rate, children in a specific school with a low rate of immunizations could still be at risk.
Rep. Mike Fisher, chair of the House Committee on Health Care, said the immunization debate has been one of the most challenging issues of the year.
“This proves to be one of the most difficult and controversial issues we’ve dealt with,” Fisher said before signing the report. “I’m in part baffled, and in part I understand. It strikes at a core conflict of values. I appreciate the frustrations. We’ve been living in it ourselves. I believe we have taken a modest step at both protecting individual rights and protecting the public.”
The compromise also would require schools and child-care facilities to make publicly available aggregated immunization rates of the student body for each vaccine. Parents using the exemption would need to provide a signed statement each year that they understand the risks to their children and others if they decline the vaccines. The bill would also require the departments of Education and Health to convene a working group to address how to protect children with compromised immune systems. The group will have to study the feasibility of allowing those students to enroll in a school with higher immunization rates.
The House and Senate will both have to vote on the conference committee’s report.