A House-Senate conference committee is trying to bridge a strong difference of opinion between the two chambers on what is one of the most emotional issues of the session – exemptions to the state’s mandatory childhood immunization law.
There are currently three exemptions to Vermont’s childhood immunization law; if a child has health problems, for religious beliefs, and for philosophical reasons.
According to the state Health Department, Vermont has one of the lowest compliance rates in the country for the full battery of immunizations and this situation prompted the Senate to pass a bill that eliminates the philosophical exemption.
But backers of the exemption convinced the House to keep it in place, citing the rights of parents to determine the health of their children. Instead, the House bill concentrates on expanding educational programs.
Rutland senator Kevin Mulllin offered a compromise. The plan would keep the philosophical exemption, but if compliance rates for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, or pertussis drop below 90 percent in any school, then the exemption would be suspended for parents in that school.
"The real problem is that if you’re going to protect kids it doesn’t matter if the statewide threshold is at 95 percent if there’s particular school that has it at 75 percent," Mullin said. "And so that was the theory is that if your child who has been fully immunized is in a school that’s way below the herd immunity thresholds then there ought to be some way to kick in the suspension of the exemption for that particular district."
Lincoln Rep. Mike Fisher is the chairman of the House Health Care committee. He said Mullin’s plan deserves closer scrutiny.
"Certainly worth looking at," Fisher said. "I think finding a trigger – I’m not 100 percent sure that the trigger of 90 percent makes sense and I’m not exactly sure whether it make sense to do it on a smaller level than the state," he said. "I’ve got to figure out how it would exactly work but when immunization rates fall below a rate that is of concern for public health it’s a different context."
If the compromise is adopted, parents in a number of school districts would lose their philosophical exemptions because compliance rates in those schools are currently below the 90 percent threshold for the vaccinations listed in the proposal.