A broad range of health care providers would be able to exempt children from receiving vaccines required for school attendance under a bill brought before the House Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday.
The sponsor of House Bill 334, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, was among more than a dozen people who shared personal stories of children who they said were adversely affected by vaccine doses. Her son, she said, had received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to attend preschool, and subsequently developed a blood condition that causes low platelet levels.
“We determined that he had a problem when he woke up one day, completely covered in bruises from head to toe,” Carlson said. Noting that her son, now 22, still hasn’t received a medical exemption, she added, “If he gets another dose, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re not willing to take that chance.”
Carlson was careful to note that her bill was “not an anti-vax bill,” stressing that it applies only to people who have already had a negative reaction to a vaccination.
But opponents to the bill worried that the measure goes too far in allowing a wide range of providers to sign off on medical exemptions for children.
“This bill has the effect of making medical exemptions extremely easy to obtain in cases where they might not be warranted,” said Lauren Wilson, vice president at the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Vaccination is one of the most effective health measures that we have.”
Montana law currently allows people to get vaccine exemptions on medical or religious grounds. A medical exemption can only be granted by a medical physician licensed in the U.S. or Canada. Under Carlson’s bill, that would change to allow any licensed health care provider who has either provided health care to the patient or administered a vaccine to them.
“A health care provider that might not have ever been involved in a vaccination of somebody or might be something like a massage therapist would be able to sign off on a medical exemption for somebody,” said Jim Murphy, an epidemiologist and the administrator for the Department of Health and Human Service’s Public Health and Safety Division.
A succession of bill proponents shared stories of children experiencing problems including fevers, food allergies, asthma and developmental disabilities after they were vaccinated. And while Murphy agreed that some of those effects have been clearly linked to vaccines, medical studies have debunked others.
“There are definitely adverse events that happen after vaccines. And the science and the studies that are conducted show they are pretty rare,” Murphy said. But, he added, “A lot of those events can’t be directly associated with the vaccine. These events happen to populations that aren’t vaccinated for any reason. It’s really hard to look at these events that unfortunately do happen, and always identify causation.”
Opponents to the bill also argued that language intended to strengthen the privacy requirements for records of vaccinated children could have the effect of making it difficult for DPHHS to determine whether schools were complying with state vaccine requirements.
Carlson indicated during the committee’s discussion that she would be open to reworking language in the bill specifying the types of caregivers able to grant medical exemptions to vaccinations.
But she also argued that for people living in rural communities, finding a licensed physician willing to do so can be extremely difficult.
“Driving down to another city where you do not have a doctor-patient relationship, and asking a doctor who does not know your child, who has never seen anyone in your family, to go off of your word that there is a problem they need to sign their name to … is simply not going to happen,” Carlson said.
Several other bills related to loosening requirements on vaccinations are working their way through the Legislature this session. The bills come as the state, nation and world are undertaking a massive effort to vaccinate people against COVID-19 in an effort to end the pandemic that's gripped the globe for nearly a year.
Rep. Ed Hill, a Havre Republican, is carrying House Bill 332, set for a hearing Monday in the House Education Committee.
Hill's bill would add to school vaccination laws the concept of immunity to a disease through infection and recovery, and also include the controversial practice of "homeoprophylaxis," a form of homeopathy.
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is carrying Senate Bill 132. It would change state law to say that if employers who require vaccinations offer accommodations for employees who have religious objections or allergies, they must offer the same accommodations to all other workers.
Regier said his bill is "about stopping discrimination in the workplace."
The bill has cleared the Senate on 29-21 vote and was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
There were no supporters, but the bill saw opposition from the five Catholic hospitals in Montana, as well as Billings Clinic. The hospitals said employees get flu shots to protect patients whose immune systems are compromised, like cancer patients.
"Part of our patient safety is keeping them well and not infecting them with something while they're in our facility," said Aimee Grmoljez, a lobbyist for Billings Clinic.
Carlson is also carrying House Bill 415, which aims to prohibit discrimination based on vaccination status and prohibit the use of immunity passports. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.
— Montana State News Bureau head Holly Michels contributed to this story.