Removal Of Philosophical Exemption Hangs In The Balance

Apr 27, 2015

The next few weeks could be a critical time for legislation that eliminates the philosophical exemption to Vermont's mandatory immunization law.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he might drop his opposition to the plan if the House follows the lead of the Senate in supporting this bill.

Vermont offers parents three exemptions to the state's childhood immunization law: for medical conditions, on religious grounds or for philosophical reasons.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, the parents of just over 5 percent of all children entering public or private kindergarten claim one of these exemptions. The vast majority are for philosophical concerns.

Last week, the Senate gave its approval to a bill that eliminates the philosophical exemption. The vote was 18-11.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has been a supporter of this exemption. He says a mandatory reporting law passed in 2012 should be given more time to work.

But he says he would be willing to re-examine his position if the House passes the Senate bill in the final weeks of the session.

"If the Legislature has significantly changed their views on this from two and a half years ago, which would surprise me, I'm all ears, I'm willing to listen." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

"It is not the kind of bill where you should say, in my view, 'No way no how,'” Shumlin says. “If the Legislature has significantly changed their views on this from two and a half years ago, which would surprise me, I'm all ears, I'm willing to listen."

So the big question is: What will the House do on this issue? House Speaker Shap Smith says it's likely that a House committee will take testimony on the Senate bill. But Smith says it's not clear if the legislation has enough support to pass in the House.

"I believe that it would be appropriate to remove the philosophical exemption, but I think based on the last time we had this conversation this is particularly divisive issue in the House,” Smith says.

"I believe that it would be appropriate to remove the philosophical exemption, but I think based on the last time we had this conversation this is particularly divisive issue in the House." - House Speaker Shap Smith

In 2012, the House rejected a similar Senate bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption. But Smith says some things have changed in the last three years.

"I think the events that have occurred outside of the state, particularly in regard to the measles epidemics in California, have raised some concern among members about declining immunization rates nationally,” Smith says. “And I think people want to make sure that our kids are protected."

House leaders are expected to make a decision about the future of this bill in about 10 days.