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Controversial Vaccine Bill Moves To The House

the capitol building behind pink blossoms
Oregon State Capitol in Salem. | ROBERT AUGHENBAUGH
April 26, 2019

The controversial vaccination bill that would prohibit all but medically necessary exemptions has moved to the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives.

Lawmakers in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means passed House Bill 3063 following a brief hearing Friday morning. The bill would eliminate non-medical exemptions for school aged children. Those who aren't vaccinated and don't have a medical exemption would be barred from attending public or private schools starting in fall 2020.

A Ways and Means subcommittee on Wednesday advanced the bill to the full Joint Committee on Ways and Means along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

But Friday's 13-7 vote in favor saw one defection on each side, and several lawmakers expressed uncertainty about how they would vote in their full chambers.

"I'm a ‘no’ this morning, but after conversations with my wife and additional thoughts and prayers, I'll make a final decision," said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joined Republicans in opposition, while Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, sided with Democrats.

Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, voted to advance the bill but said he would vote against it on the full Senate floor, and Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, indicated she was still undecided.

"This issue has been one of the most emotional issues I've seen in all my years in the Legislature," Beyer said.

The vaccination bill has been a lightning rod in this legislative session, prompting several large rallies and hours of often emotional testimony in committees by opponents, most of them parents who choose to alternate their child's vaccination schedule or forego them entirely.

About 31,000 Oregon children aren't fully vaccinated according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended schedule. The state has the highest rate of kindergarteners lacking one or more vaccines due to a non-medical exemption in the country -- 7.5 percent.

Proponents say removing non-medical exemptions is necessary to ensure large outbreaks of once-eradicated preventable illnesses like measles from spreading in Oregon. Measles outbreaks infected more than 70 Clark County children and more than 500 people in New York this year. Los Angeles County declared a measles outbreak this week and has quarantined hundreds of students at two large universities.

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means approved an amendment to the bill pushed by Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, seen as a compromise to allow greater leeway for medical exemptions. The amendment would establish a process for licensed physicians, nurse practitioners and naturopathic physicians to approve medical exemptions for vaccines in consultation with local school districts. Those exemptions would be reevaluated annually by the state.

Another amendment would restrict children from attending school if they have a restricted disease that's not preventable by immunization until a qualified medical official determines the child is no longer carrying the disease.

No date has been set for HB 3063 to receive a full House vote. Passage there would send it over to the Senate.

Have a tip about the health-care industry or legislation? You can reach Elon Glucklich at [email protected].