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Clock ticking on dispute over vaccination exemptions

A young boy watches as he is vaccinated. (Photo: JPC-PROD, via Shutterstock)

A contentious, heavily amended attempt to tighten California’s mandatory vaccination law remains stalled in the Legislature with the deadline less than four weeks away.

The measure would crack down on doctors who write fake medical exemptions for children. It would require physicians to provide detailed information to the California Department of Public Health, including their name and medical license number, the reason for the patient’s exemption, and proof that the physician had seen the patient.

“Medical exemptions have more than tripled since the passage of SB 277. Some schools are reporting that more than 20 percent of their students have a medical exemption.” — Richard Pan.

Also, a statewide database listing the exemptions would be established to ensure transparency.

The bill, SB 276 by Sen. Richard Pan,  D-Sacramento, is a follow up to his earlier SB 277, which eliminated the personal belief exemption in California fr vaccinations.

The passage of that bill caused vaccination rates in the state to increase from around 91% to nearly 95%, but it also led to a noticeable rise in medical exemptions.

During 2015-2016, when the regulation was passed, exemptions were around .2%. That number has more than quadrupled and now sits at .9%. According to a statement from Pan’s office, which cites a 2019 report from the CDPH, “More than 100 schools have a medical exemption rate over 10 percent, far beyond what should be expected, putting children and communities at risk.”

He has also noted that an outbreak of measles has reached its highest level in two decades.

“Medical exemptions have more than tripled since the passage of SB 277. Some schools are reporting that more than 20 percent of their students have a medical exemption,” said Pan, a pediatrician. “It is clear that a small number of physicians are monetizing their exemption-granting authority and profiting from the sale of medical exemptions.”

Despite the alterations (to SB 276), hundreds of parents still rallied against the bill when hearings were held in front of the Assembly Health Committee.

Pan’s latest bill is co-sponsored by the California Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, California and Vaccinate California. The California Medical Board, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom have also endorsed the bill, which was approved 24-10 in the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. There, it has been placed on the committee’s suspense file — a common legislative move that is frequently used to derail legislation. The Legislature has a Sept. 13 deadline to act on bills, before leaving for the year.

But critics of SB 276 say the measure usurps parental rights and places their authority in the hands of the state.

“Children that are medically fragile and do qualify for medical exemption should be allowed to attend schools or sports or different arenas that they choose to,” Sacramento resident Carmen Del Castillo told a KCRA reporter last week. She said she and her husband are “fighting for our choices, our medical choices, so we have those freedoms.” The family said four of their children suffered seizures after getting vaccines.

The bill also drew opposition from high-profile persons, including actress Jessica Biel, who said her “dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state,” Ms. Biel wrote on Instagram. She has said she is not opposed to vaccination generally, only to the restrictions in the new bill.

In late June, amendments were made to the bill that changed some of its most defining features. The changes altered the bill’s language  dealing with how medical exemptions could be revoked, and said that students who had appealed their revoked exemptions could continue going to their school as normal without yet having fulfilled their immunization requirements.

Despite the alterations, hundreds of parents still rallied against the bill when hearings were held in front of the Assembly Health Committee. AB 276 cleared the Assembly Health Committee with a 9-2 vote, and the amended version was sent to Appropriations Committee.

Editor’s Note: Joaquin Romero is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Riverside.

 


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