California Lawmaker Amends Bid to Bust Fake Vaccine Exemptions

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A California lawmaker trying to punish doctors who peddle “fake” vaccine exemptions and help parents skirt child immunization laws has amended his proposal at the behest of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Updates announced Tuesday to Senate Bill 276 will allow the state to probe doctors who issue five or more medical exemptions in a calendar year as well as any medical exemption issued to children attending schools with immunization rates below 95%. It would also require doctors to fill out a standardized form for medical exemptions and gives state regulators access to records relating to exemptions issued by doctors under investigation.

The slew of changes is the result of negotiations between the bill’s author and Newsom, who said earlier this month that he was concerned about SB 276 allowing “a bureaucrat” to make child health decision for parents.

The initial iteration required state public health officers to sign off on all medical exemptions and charged them with handling the appeals of revoked or denied exemptions.

Critics said giving public health officers the chance to overturn a licensed doctor’s opinion was a clear breach of the doctor-patient relationship. Under the amended bill, appeals will be handled by an independent panel of doctors appointed by the state secretary of health and human services.

Long-time vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actress Jessica Biel are among the critics of the effort to scrutinize medical exemptions and the pair lobbied against the proposal last week at the state capitol. Other critics include Educate.Advocate, A Voice for Choice Advocacy and Physicians for Informed Consent.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, says the updated bill will still allow parents to obtain legitimate exemptions and thanked Newsom for working with him on the amendments.

“I appreciate that the governor has worked with me in crafting a California solution to halting the abuse of medical exemptions that endanger our children,” Pan said in a statement. “The governor recognizes that we need to ensure that children who truly need medical exemptions get them and they will be safe in their schools with community immunity.”

A pediatrician, Pan previously carried Senate Bill 277 which was signed into law in 2015 by former Gov. Jerry Brown. Under SB 277, parents cannot opt out of state-mandated vaccinations for attending public school without a medical exemption from their child’s doctor.

Citing a spike in the number of medical exemptions issued by California doctors since SB 277 took effect in 2016, Pan introduced his follow-up legislation in March.

Pan believes it will discourage doctors from writing and profiting off phony exemptions by allowing the state to suspend a doctor’s ability to write medical exemptions for two years if inappropriate exemptions are given.

Pan’s latest vaccine bill passed the state Senate in May without a single Republican vote. It’s scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the Assembly Health Committee, though the bill’s opponents want the committee to suspend the hearing in light of Tuesday’s major changes.

“SB 276 has been amended so drastically it is now over 21 pages and needs a thorough vetting. It is a completely new bill!” Educate.Advocate said on its Facebook page.

Newsom, a Democrat, appears ready to sign SB 276 if the Assembly clears it this summer.

“The governor would like to thank Dr. Pan for his leadership and for partnering with the administration on these amendments,” said Health & Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly in a statement. “These amendments ensure this bill protects the doctor-patient relationship, strengthens the state’s ability to target doctors who abuse the medical exemption process and gives state public health officials the tools to identify and protect schools and communities where herd immunity is in danger.”

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