California Vaccine Proposal Advances Despite Opposition

Terry Roark displays a photo of her son, Thomas, who she said was harmed by vaccines given to him when he was an infant in the early 1970s, as she and others express their opposition Wednesday in the California capitol to a proposal that will give state public health officials instead of local doctors the power to decide which children can skip their shots before attending school. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – With a rash of measles cases spreading across the country and state, California lawmakers on Wednesday approved legislation that would give the state power over medical exemptions that parents use to send unvaccinated children to school.

The proposal, Senate Bill 276, builds on a 2015 law that removed the longstanding personal belief exemption available to parents. Currently, children must be immunized in order to attend public school unless they receive a medical exemption from their doctor.

Democratic State Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, wants to task the State Department of Public Health with reviewing old and new medical exemptions in hopes of cutting down on doctors peddling “fake” exemptions and improve vaccination rates, or community immunity. His bill mirrors a similar West Virginia law.

“We also know that this protection is also being undermined by a handful of unscrupulous physicians who are profiting from putting children at risk, and making our schools less safe,” Pan testified.

Pan says that though kindergarten vaccination rates have increased to over 95% since 2015, the number of medical exemptions issued by doctors in the state has tripled.

Under SB 276, doctors would have to fill out a new form listing reasons for the exemption and submit to regulators that they have actually examined the child. In addition, the state would compile a database of all medical exemptions and be allowed to revoke a doctor’s ability to grant exemptions if they are caught filing fraudulent exemptions.

Dozens of doctors donning white coats waited in long security lines to enter the first legislative hearing for SB 276. Joining them outside and in the crowded Capitol hallways were parents who believe vaccines do more harm than good to children.

As in 2015, opponents are rehashing parents’ and patients’ rights concerns with Pan’s legislation. Parents and even a handful of doctors testified for several hours that SB 276 would “destroy the sanctity” of the doctor-patient relationship by giving the state direct oversight over medical exemptions.

“I cannot support this bill because it is too extreme,” testified Nicole Sharrock, a pediatrician. “We believe the relationship between a patient and their doctor is sacred and patients have a right to have their medical treatment determined by their doctor, not a governmental appointee.”

The nearly six-hour-debate was littered with outbursts from the crowd with multiple opponents accusing Pan of being a tyrant; one millennial-aged woman told the senator that her “generation was coming for you.” Some cried while telling stories of their children being hurt by vaccinations and others stated proudly that they would move out of California before immunizing their kids.

Ultimately, the committee that Pan chairs advanced the legislation on a party-line vote, with two Republicans voting no. Pan’s bill must next clear a Senate fiscal committee before a floor vote, and then on to the Assembly. 

“The true goal of public health is prevention, as opposed to reacting after the fact,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who voted for SB 276.

The renewed fight between those against vaccinations and Sen. Pan comes amid an extreme spike in documented measles cases in a country where the disease was completely eliminated as recently as 2000.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that the number of measles cases had risen to 695, the highest number of recorded cases since 2000. It is encouraging parents to vaccinate children and reminding the public that measles is a “highly contagious, potentially life-threatening disease.”

“Vaccines are a safe, highly effective public health solution that can prevent this disease,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. “The measles vaccines are among the most extensively studied medical products we have, and their safety has been firmly established over many years in some of the largest vaccine studies ever undertaken.”

Current outbreaks, which are defined as three or more cases, are ongoing in New York City, Washington state, Michigan and California.

On Tuesday, Washington state lawmakers approved a bill similar to California’s 2015 law which would remove parents’ ability to claim a religious or personal belief medical exemption for their children. The measure is now headed to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

Pan concluded the marathon hearing by stating that his bill’s main purpose is to weed out bad doctors and prevent future outbreaks of measles and other preventable diseases.

“Schools with low vaccination rates represent the tinder for a disease-wildfire that could harm the broader community,” Pan said.

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