From left, House Speaker Shap Smith, Health Care Committee chair Bill Lippert, Rep. Paul Dame and House Minority Leader Don Turner discuss vaccination legislation on the House floor Tuesday.
By an 85-57 vote that knew no political or geographical boundaries, the House agreed Tuesday to remove the philosophical exemption that allows parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children.
The move would require a nod from the Senate and the governor’s signature to become law. Parents could still opt for a religious exemption, though some argue that fewer will.
“The right of a parent sometimes is trumped by what’s in the best interest of society as a whole,” said Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre), who championed the change. “Vermont’s immunization rate is the lowest of all New England states. We need to change that.”
The vote came a day after the House hosted a packed and passionate public hearing. House members followed that with nearly five hours of debate Tuesday during which members nearly opted instead for a compromise. By a 73-71 vote, the House defeated an amendment to replace the state's philosophical and religious exemptions with a tougher-to-obtain alternative-medicine exemption.
Watching the afternoon debate from the House gallery, Jennifer Stella of Waitsfield, executive director of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, was disappointed. "The Vermont House just made a grave mistake that forces parents into untenable situations,” she said.
Stella’s group supported the near-miss of an alternative that had been proposed by Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield). Donahue said she wanted to create a higher bar but to still offer parents an exemption.
“Some parents, in the best interests of their children, want to make a different decision,” Donahue said.
Donahue’s amendment would have created a new exemption. To qualify, parents would have had to follow a more rigorous process than checking a box, as parents can do now with the philosophical exemption. Parents would have had to sign an affidavit saying their children were receiving viable alternative medicine, that they had read about the value of vaccinations, completed an online form and had consulted with a health care professional.
Donahue won support from those who thought her exemption would increase vaccination rates while still offering an option to those who strongly oppose vaccinations.
“I feel like the member from Northfield has offered us a middle way,” said Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney).
Mrowicki read a letter in which his physician, Clif Steinberg of Westminster, raised questions about mandating vaccines. “We should all be uncomfortable with mandatory medical treatment,” Mrowicki said.
Mrowicki opted not to reveal that Steinberg is a naturopathic physician who received a doctor of naturopathy degree. Later in the debate, Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), who is a medical doctor, pointed that out. “It is clear how the mainline medical community feels about this,” said Till, an outspoken supporter of removing the exemption.
Tuesday’s debate defied political affiliation. Even the Democratic leadership team came down on opposite sides.
Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), who does not vote unless there’s a tie, supported removing the exemption. House majority leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) voted against removing the philosophical exemption, while assistant majority leader Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) voted for it.
House Health Care Committee chair Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), who spent days overseeing heated testimony on the issue, voted against removing the exemption. He supported Donahue’s alternative.
“I don’t think it’s going to achieve the goal,” Lippert said afterward. “People are just going to take the religious exemption.”
The Senate voted 18-11 last month to remove the philosophical exemption. The Senate would have to approve changes the House made to send the bill to Gov. Peter Shumlin. The governor has indicated he’d prefer not to remove the exemption but might sign the bill anyway.