MONTPELIER — Action in the House on a bill that seeks to remove the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines will be delayed until next week while a House Committee takes testimony on the issue.
Dylan Giambatista, chief of staff for Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, said the House Health Care Committee will take testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly Thursday. Currently, the committee is scheduled to hear from state health officials, medical professionals and advocates on both sides of the vaccine issue.
One of those advocates will be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of former presidential candidate, U.S. attorney general and New York. Sen. Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy, who has testified around the country against forced vaccination, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday before providing testimony to the Health Care Committee, according to Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier-based lobbyist working to retain the state’s philosophical exemption.
Kennedy’s views and comments about vaccinations have been somewhat controversial. Last month he compared vaccination to a holocaust. And he has linked vaccinations with autism. The Journal of the American Medical Society has stated there is “no harmful association” between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.
Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said Monday that Shumlin was asked to meet with Kennedy Tuesday and was told the governor “would probably have time in the afternoon to meet for a few minutes.” That meeting will not be open to the public, according to Coriell, and will not impact Shumlin’s views.
“The only voices that matter to the governor on this debate and any other are those of Vermonters,” he wrote in an email.
Ellis said he does not expect Kennedy’s recent comment to detract from his testimony.
“He’s been right on everything that matters,” Ellis said. “I think he apologized. We all make mistakes in the passion of the moment. He’s an important voice in the debate and it’s a debate that we need to have.”
Advocates in favor of removing the state’s philosophical exemption are also slated to be at the State House Tuesday. A group of Vermont mothers and grandmothers are holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Passionate debate over the issue of vaccine exemptions was reignited earlier this year when Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced a bill to remove the right of parents to decline vaccinations for their children for philosophical reasons. It would also prevent students who are not vaccinated from attending school. A medical exemption and a religious exemption would remain.
That bill did not move, but Mullin and others were able to attach legislative language to another bill dealing with a disease registry. The bill, which included removing the philosophical exemption, passed the Senate on an 18 to 11 vote.
The bill as amended by the Senate has since languished in the House for nearly two weeks. The House postponed action on it until May 6, but that will now be pushed back further, Giambatista said, to what is expected to be the final week of this legislative session.
“I don’t think it’s going to be this week. It would be next week at the earliest, so it’s going to be down to the wire on the clock,” he said. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and have our opportunity for discussion.”
The Senate passed a similar repeal of the philosophical exemption in 2012, only to see it squashed by the House. Smith, whose wife is a physician, supports repealing the exemption, but it remains unclear if there is enough support in the House to advance it.
“He shares that with both sides on the issue. He is very clear on this issue,” Giambatista said. “The conversation is going to be ongoing.”
The speaker has met with both proponents and opponents of removing the exemption. Both sides will have a chance to testify before the House Health Care Committee this week.
“In terms of support levels, I don’t know. It’s a difficult issue to call because both sides are well-organized,” Giambatista.
Shumlin has been a supporter of keeping the exemption in place, but has indicated a willingness in recent weeks to entertain the debate. Coriell said Monday that Shumlin wants to give the law he signed in 2012 time to work.
That law requires parents or guardians to sign a form from the Heath Department acknowledging they have “reviewed and understands evidence-based educational material provided by the department of health regarding immunizations, including information about the risks of adverse reactions to immunization.”
The law also allows students to remain in school without required vaccines for up to six months if they are in the process of receiving them.
“The governor supports the law he signed two years ago and thinks we should give it a chance to work. If the Legislature wants to debate this issue further, he is open to that debate,” Coriell said.