February 16, 2015

The state Senate Health Care Committee will hold a public hearing this week on proposed legislation that would remove parents’ ability to exempt their children from vaccinations for nonmedical reasons.

Senate Bill 442, as currently written, directs the Oregon Health Authority to give parents deadlines for submitting the required documentation for nonmedical exemptions. But state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said that planned amendments to the bill, which she is sponsoring, would effectively limit exemptions to specific medical conditions.

Steiner Hayward, the Senate’s majority whip, said the planned amendments would remove language in the current law – in Oregon Revised Statutes 433.267, Section 1, subsection c – that allows parents to forgo vaccinations for a child attending school or child care with a document “stating that the parent is declining one or more immunizations on behalf of the child … because of a religious or philosophical belief.”

The planned amendments would also task the Oregon Health Authority with establishing by rule “what conditions qualify someone for a medical exemption and which licensed providers are qualified to do that,” Steiner Hayward said.

If the bill passes, it would take effect immediately.

The hearing is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, in the state Capitol, room HR A, 900 Court St. N.E. in Salem. (Wednesday is also Exclusion Day, the date by which children over 18 months old must be up to date on their immunizations to continue attending school or child care.)

Steiner Hayward said she has strong bipartisan support for the bill. “Frankly, I’ve never had so many people clamor to (co-sponsor) with me,” she said. “I’ve got people just banging down my door.”

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, who chairs the health committee, and Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, are listed as co-sponsors of the bill.

Steiner Hayward said she didn’t think the committee would have more than one public hearing on the bill, though there will have to be a work session. It’s possible, she said, that there could be a floor vote on the bill by the end of the month.

“I have no question that I have plenty of votes to get it off the Senate floor,” Steiner Hayward said. She said she also has broad support in the House, including a promise of co-sponsorship from Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who like her is a doctor and who sits on the House Health Care Committee.

Buehler said he was ready to co-sponsor the legislation in the House. “I think it’s necessary,” he said. “I’m all for freedom until it starts to do harm to others and I think that this bill helps prevent this.”

“The role of government is really to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Buehler said. “When necessary, we need to lead people and encourage them to do the right things.”

Steiner Hayward said she expects testimony at Wednesday’s hearing from public health officials, health professionals and teachers about why the proposed legislation is an important change, “about the public health risks associated with Oregon’s abysmal immunization rate, about the safety of immunizations and how important they are and how we know that they are very safe.”

She also expects “passionate” testimony from those who oppose vaccinations because of concerns about vaccines’ safety and a desire to preserve parental autonomy. She said she is sympathetic to those perspectives.

But “when it comes to parental choices that put their child at significant risk and put our community at significant risk, that’s where I start to draw the line,” she said.

“I’m a family physician and a mom,” she said. “I care deeply about the health of our state’s children and about my children and I think it’s the right thing to do.”

She and Buehler both said that studies implying a link between vaccines and adverse health effects have been discredited. Last week, Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy organization, revised its longtime stance on a possible autism-vaccination link, issuing a statement that read, “Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.”

Washington and California lawmakers also are considering bills to restrict vaccination exemptions.

In Washington, state law requires a licensed health care provider to sign certificates of exemptions unless a parent is claiming a religious exemption. A bill now before the Legislature would remove philosophical opposition as an acceptable exemption.

In California, which also allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children due to “personal beliefs,” a bill before the Legislature would remove that exemption.

— Amy Wang