Panel advances bills ending religious exemption for vaccines
A key Connecticut legislative committee on Wednesday advanced retooled legislation that scraps a long-standing state religious exemption that many parents have been using over the past decade to avoid having their children vaccinated, while still enabling them to attend public school.
The latest version includes a new provision requiring health insurance companies to cover the cost of at least a 20-minute consultation between the health care provider and the parent or guardian. There’s also language that proponents said creates a clearer path for medical exemptions, which will remain available, including the creation of a new medical exemption certificate that physicians would fill out.
“It is really left up to the families and the practitioner, ultimately the practitioner, to determine whether a medical exemption is warranted,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee. “But our goal is to enhance that conversation, that rapport, to avoid tense moments in practices between families and practitioners and to lead ideally to more families finding a path to vaccinate their children.”
That conversation, he said, could lead to extending the schedule of childhood vaccinations, such as measles, mumps and rubella, for example.
In an unusual move, the legislative committee, made up of House and Senate members, was voting Wednesday on two identical bills. One now proceeds to the House and the second to the Senate.
While some Republicans questioned whether there were political motivations behind the move, Steinberg said it was done to ensure “flexibility” for scheduling a floor vote on the legislation during the pandemic, which has forced much of the General Assembly’s proceedings to virtual meetings.
Both bills passed 22-11 along partisan lines.
This marks the third year in a row that lawmakers have considered removing the religious exemption. It has become a mostly partisan issue in Connecticut, with Democrats in support and the GOP in opposition.
Some Republicans, however, said Wednesday they support vaccinations and even vaccinated their own children, but disagree with the state essentially forcing parents to get their children inoculated in order for them to attend public school.
“Who are we in the state to say we know better than you?” asked Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield.
The bill also applies to higher education and child care centers.
While last year’s version of the bill grandfathered all unvaccinated children who already had religious exemptions, this year’s legislation only excuses students in the 7th grade and older - a change that bothered both Republicans and some Democrats.
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, a physician who voted against both bills on Wednesday, said he has struggled with the legislation because there isn’t a clear plan for how to address the educational needs of unvaccinated students who would no longer be allowed to attend public school as of Sept. 1, 2022.
“From my point of view, the science issues are pretty straight-forward,” Petit said. “But I think the ramifications in terms of the educational impact on kids is really confusing.”
Steinberg said the issue will likely be revisited as the bills proceed through the legislative process. The legislative session ends on June 9.