California Lawmakers Amend Mandatory Vaccine Bill to Satisfy Critics

by | April 23, 2015

By Melody Gutierrez

A bill that would make vaccines mandatory for California schoolchildren passed its toughest committee Wednesday and now heads to a panel dominated by lawmakers who support the proposal.

SB277 stalled only a week ago due to lack of support among lawmakers after hundreds of parents poured into the state Senate Education Committee to object to its passage. Now, however, it's closer to moving to the full Senate for a vote.

Opponents said they will keep up the fight against the bill to ensure that unvaccinated kids aren't barred from public and private schools.

"We will continue to show our strength and continue to educate lawmakers and the public on why this is a bad bill," said Jean Keese, spokeswoman for the California Coalition for Health Choice, which opposes the bill.

SB277 would eliminate the option California parents currently have of allowing their children to skip all or some of the required school immunizations by signing a personal-belief exemption, a broad waiver that includes religious objections. The bill allows parents in California to continue obtaining doctor-approved medical exemptions for children who cannot be safely vaccinated.

The legislation won support from the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday in a bipartisan 7-2 vote that appeared unlikely just a week earlier. The same committee delayed voting on the bill last week as it appeared short of the votes needed to pass.

The week's delay allowed lawmakers to amend the bill to allow exemptions for students who are home-schooled or who study at home in independent programs. Several senators said additional amendments will likely be needed as the bill moves forward to ensure that unvaccinated kids are not denied the education guaranteed to them by the California Constitution. Several lawmakers said they would like to see more school options for those who aren't immunized, other than home school and independent study.

Friendly committee

For now, the bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, where it faces a friendly audience. The five Democrats on the committee are either supporters of the bill or have previously voted in favor of it. SB277 would need five votes in support to move forward, and may need approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee before moving to the full Senate.

"We think we've struck a fair balance here that provides more options to parents who are concerned about not vaccinating their children," said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who authored the bill with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.

Allen and Pan, who is a pediatrician, say the bill is needed to drive up immunization rates to protect the public.

Public health officials say at least 90 percent of the population needs to be immunized to prevent the spread of diseases like measles and whooping cough and to protect individuals who can't receive vaccines because of age or illness.

The statewide vaccination rate among California kindergartners this school year is 90.4 percent, but the rates are much lower in certain pockets of the state. The use of personal-belief exemptions dropped nearly 20 percent, to 13,592 filed this school year for kindergartners, due to a new law that requires parents meet with a health care provider about the benefits of vaccination. At the request of Gov. Jerry Brown, that new law doesn't apply to those who object to vaccinations based on religious beliefs.

Brown would closely consider SB277 if it reaches his desk because the governor "believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit," said spokesman Evan Westrup.

SB277 was introduced in response to the multistate measles outbreak that began in December and was traced to Disneyland. The bill is supported by major medical and education groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, California Medical Association, California State PTA and San Francisco Unified School District.

Senators' concerns

The two senators who voted Wednesday against the bill -- Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino (San Bernardino County) and Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster (Los Angeles County) -- said the amendments already made were a step in the right direction, but didn't go far enough to address their concerns. Runner said her greatest concern was that the bill "eliminates parents' rights to choose what is best for their own children."

"I firmly believe in vaccines," Leyva said. "I still have a concern that this will not go far enough to help a two-income family who cannot home-school their child or a single working parent."

In previous lengthy hearings before Wednesday's vote, hundreds of opponents took turns telling lawmakers they opposed the bill, many saying they feared for their child's health due to previous reactions to vaccinations. In protests outside the Capitol in recent weeks, opponents have voiced concerns that vaccines can cause autism, an allegation not supported by science, or that the bill leaves parents no choices when it comes to children who have had reactions not severe enough to warrant a medical exemption.

Bill opponent Lisa Bakshi, a teacher in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, said medical exemptions are not easy to obtain, leaving many parents reliant on personal-belief exemptions.

"It is so rigid," said Bakshi, who said she has had medical testing to prove her children are immune to some diseases and thus has chosen to skip the vaccines for those. "My son has been seen by an immunologist at Stanford and can still not get a medical exemption. The average rate for medical exemptions in this state are 0.19 percent. It is a distortion of the truth to say those who need a medical exemption can get one."

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle