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May 07, 2012

On Last Day of Legislature, Senate Takes One More Shot at Vaccine Bill

DSC02326Turns out Vermonters won't have to find Jesus in order to get out of vaccinating their school-bound children. 

But they will have to sign a form every year declaring that they understand their un-immunized kids could inadvertently sicken — or even kill — another child.

That was the compromise agreed to at the Statehouse on the final day of the 2012 legislative session on Saturday.

The bill passed Saturday maintains the philosophical and religious exemptions. But it will require parents to provide schools and day care providers with a signed statement — every year — declaring, among other things, that they understand:

"There are persons with special health needs attending schools and child care facilities who are unable to be vaccinated or who are at heightened risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable communicable disease and for whom such a disease could be life-threatening."

Sen. Phillip Baruth (D-Chittenden, pictured) called that language "coercive" and said it forces parents annually to "certify that their actions could endanger other kids."

"We're basically saying, 'We would like to take your rights away. We're not going to do it, but we're going to make you sign a form saying we were right all along,'" Baruth said.

The backdrop for Baruth's comments: The Senate voted 26-4 earlier in the session to abolish the philosophical exemption from Vermont's vaccine law — a response to new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough. Under pressure from parents' rights groups, the House restored the exemption in its version of the bill. In the final compromise bill, Senate and House negotiators settled on maintaining both exemptions, but making parents who claim them sign off that they understand the risks of not vaccinating their kids.

Baruth was one of four senators to vote "no" on the original bill removing the exemption. On Saturday, the Senate passed the compromise version 20-5 but not before senators had one more chance to sound off on the issue.

Baruth wondered aloud whether signing the disclaimer form could expose parents who claim exemptions to criminal liability should their child actually cause another kid to get sick or die. Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), an attorney, assured Baruth that the office of Legislative Council had reviewed that question and determined there was no potential for parents to be charged with child endangerment.

Flory also shared a personal story about her own son that illustrated just the scenario addressed by the new statement parents must sign. Flory's son has Crohn's disease, an autoimmune disorder, and she said his first round of DPT vaccine — for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus — "close to killed him."

So her son, who is now grown with kids, received a medical exemption for the rest of his childhood vaccines. Back then, Flory said she didn't worry much about her child contracting a vaccine-preventable disease because immunization rates were higher. But if all that had happened today, Flory predicted she "wouldn't now have three grandchildren."

"Sometimes you need to protect people who, through no fault of their own, cannot protect themselves," said Flory, who voted 'yes' on the compromise bill.

Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) was the original sponsor of the bill to do away with the philosophical exemption. He voted yes in the final bill, he said, because it created "better education" about the risks of not immunizing children. "With freedom comes great responsibility," he intoned.

Two senators said Baruth's remarks actually persuaded them to change their vote — but not in the direction Baruth was hoping. Sens. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said they had been planning to vote 'no' because they perceived the final vaccine bill as do-nothing legislation. But after hearing Baruth talk, they viewed the bill as moving the ball forward.

Asked about the unintended impact of his floor speech, Baruth said he took his colleagues' remarks about changing their votes as "a rhetorical point and not literal."

The parents' group in favor of the philosophical exemption, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, celebrated the final bill as a victory. An earlier version of the bill contained a trigger that would have removed the philosphical exemption if vaccination rates fell below 90 percent in Vermont. That provision was removed in the final bill.

"This is a win," the group said on its website. "It would have been even better to defeat the bill completely and totally and utterly, but we still have the philosophical exemption in Vermont."

Photo credit: Andy Bromage

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