The Shumlin Administration's Meandering Views On Vaccination

May 28, 2015

On Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill that removes Vermont’s “philosophical exemption” to mandatory vaccination for schoolchildren. The move was a major reversal for the governor who said in no uncertain terms that lawmakers should “leave it alone” when asked about the philosophical exemption this February.

“Vaccines work and parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Shumlin said in a statement released by his office after the signing. “I know there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. I wish the legislation passed three years ago had worked to sufficiently increase vaccination rates. However we’re not where we need to be to protect our kids from dangerous diseases, and I hope this legislation will have the effect of increasing vaccination rates.”

A 2012 legislative debate ended with a compromise that didn’t remove the exemption, but required parents to review educational materials before claiming the exemption. Shumlin’s confidence in that legislation - and his opposition to the bill he signed Thursday - seem to have faded significantly since February.

At a Feb. 4 news conference, Shumlin said he agreed with Health Commissioner Harry Chen that vaccines work and children should be vaccinated, but “we have to find the balance between what we believe and individual liberties. So I think we found that balance and I think this is a Vermont common sense approach to a problem, and I think we’re succeeding. So we should let the bill that passed a couple of years ago work. I think it’s going to, through education, through information and through common sense, I think it will lead to higher levels of vaccination going forward.”

The day before that news conference, Shumlin’s health commissioner Chen told VPR that he was against the exemption.

“My position has always been fairly clear,” Chen said, “that I do think that vaccination is the safest thing you can do for your children and that it’s our responsibility to ensure that all kids in school – especially those that can’t be vaccinated – are protected. So I am not in favor of the philosophical exemption.”

Apparently, Chen changed his  mind in the three days following his interview with VPR. On Feb. 6, the Burlington Free Press reported that Chen said in a statement that he wasn’t sure if removing the exemption would be the right move.

"Vaccination is the most important action you can take to protect your child's health," Chen said in a statement. "We are not convinced that removing the philosophical exemption will contribute to improved childhood immunization rates. We know some of the things that work — vaccination requirements for child care, school and college entry, recall reminders for parents, strong recommendation from providers, and the fact that we provide all the recommended vaccines at no cost to either the provider or the patient."

As the end of the legislative session approached, Shumlin remained firm in a late April interview that he thought the 2012 legislation sufficiently addressed the issue.

“There’s no question the science suggests this is absolutely the right thing to do,” he said “And we passed a bill that we felt would educate parents about the risks not only to them, but to other kids and other people, if they don’t vaccinate, and we want to give that bill a chance to work.”

At the same time, Shumlin said his views might change.

“It is not the kind of bill where you should say, in my view, ‘No way no how,” he said in late April . “If the legislature has significantly changed their views on this from two-and-a-half years ago – which would surprise me – I am all ears and willing to listen.”

Health Commissioner Harry Chen said in February that he opposed the philosophical exemption, then that he wasn't sure. In May, he again said he was opposed.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR File

By May 7, both Chen and Shumlin’s stances on the philosophical exemption seemed to have shifted.

The Associated Press reported on May 7 that Chen said Shumlin was “neutral” on the issue.

“I think the governor’s position is that he’s neutral; he understands that the legislature decided to take this up,” Chen said, according to the AP report. “And we’ll support whatever comes out of this Legislature.”

Chen himself told the House Health Care Committee on May 7 that he was against the exemption and implied that his views on the issue had been firm for years.

“I continue to support removing the philosophical exemption, just as I did in 2012,” he said, according to the AP story.

By a May 18 interview with VPR, Shumlin seemed to say that he was still happy with the 2012 law but also approved of the new bill.

“I’ve always been clear that you should vaccinate your kids, that vaccinations work. I wished that the voluntary system that we put in place two-and-a-half years ago had actually reduced the numbers in Vermont, which they haven’t. So my feeling was I was perfectly happy to let the bill that we put in place work for another year or two, but I believe in vaccinations, they’re the right thing to do, and I hope that this will work in actually increasing the number of kids that we have in Vermont who are vaccinated.”

Shumlin mentioned the new bill didn’t remove two other exemptions that allow children to go to school unvaccinated – religious beliefs and medical necessity. He noted that parents don’t need to provide a letter from religious officials in order to claim that exemption.

“So the point is there’s still ways to avoid vaccination,” Shumlin said. “I think what we’ve got to do a better job of is convincing parents why vaccinations make sense not just for their kids, but for the kids and people that they’re in contact with. We’ve got to raise the numbers.”