Tag Archives: Kevin Mullin

Vaccine debate heats up with a star witness

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.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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.

Sen. Kevin Mullin

Sen. Kevin Mullin

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.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers discuss vaccine exemptions for children

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers are considering the elimination of the philosophical exemption for parents who wish to send their children to public school without being vaccinated.

Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced an amendment to a bill that modifies how the Department of Health handles information in its vaccine registries. 

Mullin said the amendment addresses concerns both immediate and long term.

“We’re one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont,” said Mullin, noting a measles outbreak in December in California that spread to 16 other states, including New York.

Mullin’s other concern is the decline in the number of children who are being vaccinated in Vermont.

By one measure, Vermont has one of the lowest rates of child vaccination of any state in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the 2012-13 school year, 6.1 percent of children entering kindergarten in Vermont did not receive one or more of 34 vaccinations recommended by age 6 by the CDC.

And not only is Vermont’s rate near the top for the country, it is growing. During the 2011-12 school year, 5.7 percent of incoming kindergartners did not receive one or more vaccinations.

The philosophical exemption is the most common one invoked by Vermont parents who do not want to vaccinate their children. During the 2012-13 school year, 371 children who entered kindergarten without one or more vaccinations claimed a philosophical exemption, compared with 30 children claiming a medical exemption and only 14 claiming religious exemption.

Mullin’s amendment — which includes support from co-sponsors Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington; and Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor — met with opposition from lawmakers who might otherwise support eliminating the philosophical exemption.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, who had a family member with polio and who was a “polio pioneer” by being among the first children to receive the vaccine, said that while he supports vaccination, he opposed the amendment because it was introduced without first being discussed by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, concurred with McCormack, noting that while the issue came up for debate three years ago, there has not been any debate this session.

“I voted for this in the past but I won’t vote for it today,” Cummings said. “The people have a right to be heard, not two years ago or three years ago, but today.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke in support of eliminating the philosophical exemption, while suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

“I’m not even sure there should be a religious exemption,” White said. “If it were up to me, I’d eliminate the religious exemption, too.”

Mullin said that, based on past testimony taken from parents who use the religious exemption, that eliminating it “raises the specter of a court battle.”

In the end, lawmakers decided to take testimony on the issue, which will be limited to new scientific studies issued since the last time they took testimony, and will revisit the issue Wednesday.

McCormack noted that, regardless what decision he and his fellow lawmakers make, parents will be unhappy.

“No matter what we do, large numbers of Vermonters will feel we erred and did an injustice to the people,” McCormack said.

Election-day voter registration moves forward

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are taking a step that could increase voter participation.

By a vote of 20 to 7 Thursday afternoon, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow residents to register to vote on the day of an election. Currently, an individual who wishes to cast a vote on a Tuesday must have registered to vote by the previous Wednesday.

“Those of us in this building spend a lot of time thinking about elections, but most people don’t,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “People move or go into long-term care facilities in a town where they were not originally registered to vote and didn’t get engaged until the last moment. That doesn’t mean they’re uninformed.”

Under the terms of the bill, an individual could show up at a polling place the day of an election and present documentation of residency as required by federal law, such as photo identification or a utility bill. Either the town clerk or members of the municipality’s board of civil authority would review the documentation, and if approved, the individual would be a allowed to vote that day.

Currently, 13 states, and the District of Columbia, allow election-day voter registration.

“This is a voter-rights issue,” said Sec. Of State James Condos, following the vote. “This is for the benefit of the voter, for the benefit of the citizens to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.”

According to Condos, places that have election-day voter registration have seen their rates of participation rise 10-12 percent since implementation.

Several senators expressed concern that election-day voter registration could lead to voter fraud, including Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland — who voted for the bill — and Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who did not.

“There are lots of problems with elections with the system we have now,” Degree said. “I think the integrity of our elections is more important than increased participation.”

White disagreed that the bill could open up the door to more voter fraud.

“There is no more potential for voter fraud than there is under the current system we use now,” White said. “If someone wants to commit fraud now, all they have to do is say they registered when they renewed their driver’s license.”

Condos downplayed the idea that voter fraud is much of an issue at all.
“We have a hard enough time getting people to vote once, never mind voting twice” Condos said “Voter fraud is really nonexistent in this country. There have been many, many accusations, but they usually filter out and there will be a logical reason for what happened.”

The bill is expected to come before the Senate for final approval Friday.

Senate fends off effort to repeal aid-in-dying law

MONTPELIER — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that prevents safeguards in the state’s aid-in-dying law from expiring after fending off a spirited attempt to repeal the 2013 law that allows terminal patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives.

Under the current law, patients who want to obtain lethal medication must be a Vermont resident and have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis, according to two doctors, of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily. And, the patient must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that the request was made voluntarily.

But those steps, based on a landmark Oregon law, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. That’s because two former senators who did not seek re-election last year — Peter Galbraith of Windham County and Bob Hartwell of Bennington County — insisted those safeguards sunset in exchange for supporting the law.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is spearheading the effort to amend the law to ensure those provisions remain. Legislation to do that hit the Senate floor Wednesday and was approved on a voice vote.

“It was our opinion, based on testimony, that safeguards need to be in place,” she said.

Ayer said Attorney General William Sorrell informed her committee that there have been no investigations of abuse or coercion, which the safeguards aim to prevent, because of the law. And the Department of Health reported that the law is working as intended, she said.

Ayer also said family members of patients who have utilized the law — six patients have initiated the process and at least three have taken the lethal medication — support retaining the safeguards.

The safeguards do not expire until next year, but Ayer said she wants the Senate to act now.

“We don’t want to risk it getting caught up … in the end of the biennium swirl next year,” she said.

Voting in favor of keeping the safeguards is not a vote in favor of the law, but “a vote to protect the interests of your constituents.”

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, made a motion to postpone action on the bill until January 2016 to allow lawmakers more time to consider the law’s impact. That motion was rejected on a voice vote.

“This is a painful issue,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said. “The pain is not eased in any way by delaying what we’ve set out to do.”

The debate Wednesday was much shorter than the debate in 2013 when the underlying law passed by a thin margin. But there was still passionate debate.

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who sponsored an amendment Wednesday to repeal the 2013 law, said his wife died a year-and-a-half ago of a painful disease that “eats you alive.” But his wife relied on available palliative care, McAllister said.

“There were days that were very bad, but we worked through those,” he said. “I had to deal with that.”

His amendment failed by a 12 to 18 roll call vote.

McAllister said government should not be involved in how and when people die.

“Seeing what the palliative care is in this state and the comfort they give you and the support they give the families, I don’t think this bill is necessary and I think it sends a real bad message that we’re letting government involved in decisions that need to be personal,” he said.

McAllister also said many doctors in his district are opposed to the law.

Ayer conceded that some doctors are opposed to the law, but they are not forced to write prescriptions if they are opposed, she said.

“A lot of health care providers have a problem with it, that’s why it’s completely voluntary,” Ayer said.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said the 2013 law created a right for Vermonters and repealing the law would be “an extreme act and it ought to be done with the utmost caution.”

“The amendment to repeal the bill undoes an existing right. That is a weighty and unusual step for the Legislature,” he said. “It’s done, but it’s done in extreme circumstances.”

Rutland County Republican Sen. Peg Flory said the state should not be sending a message to residents that it is OK to end your own life.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“I think it’s bad policy when the state tells people that it should be a viable alternative, that some lives you ought to consider ending,” she said.

Flory sponsored another amendment that would prevent doctors who prescribe medications to patients for symptom relief of terminal illness that are then used by a patient to end their lives from facing any criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action. It also sought to repeal the aid-in-dying law. It failed on a 10 to 20 roll call vote.

Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, who represents the Vermont Center for Independent Living, has played a leading role in the effort to repeal the law. Vitzthum, who has a son with disabilities, said Wednesday following the votes that she expects future challenges to the law.

“It’s certainly not settled for the future. As I’ve said before, this issue is never going to go away,” she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Another GOP lawmaker appears on Fox

Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin is the latest GOP lawmaker in Vermont to appear on Fox News to address comments by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber that have come to light in recent weeks. Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County appeared on the network earlier this week.

Mullin said dealing with the fallout of Gruber’s comments is “a complicated issue.” The Shumlin administration announced Wednesday that Gruber will no longer receive payment for his work, but his team of researchers and graduate assistants will continue to be paid. Continue reading

Working hard or hardly working?

MONTPELIER — Sen. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican who went along with Democrats last year and voted in favor of the single-payer health care law, wants to make sure Vermonters are getting their money’s worth out of all five members of the Green Mountain Care Board.

During a Statehouse hearing Thursday, Mullin asked the chairwoman of the board, Anya Rader Wallack, about a public perception that the other members of the board are not doing much work.

“Right now the public perception is you are Peter Shumlin’s point person on health care and nobody else knows what they’re doing,” said Mullin.

Wallack assured him the board members are working hard.

“Each of them have been up to their eyeballs in various issues,” Wallack said.

Mullin suggested notifying the press and the public when the board is out and about and hard at work in order to combat the perception.

Sounds like a good job for a PR firm, no?

— Thatcher Moats