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House panel passes contentious vaccination bill

A House committee late Thursday voted 9-2 to advance House Bill 14-1288, which would require parents who want to opt out of vaccinating their children to certify that they’ve received medical information about the benefits and risks of those shots.

The bipartisan vote came after a hearing of more than six hours before the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee, a session that got increasingly passionate and heated as the evening wore on.

The session, which started more than two hours late because of a lengthy House floor debate, drew a crowd comparable in size to those that showed up for recent hearings on testing and standards and on guns in schools.

Vaccination has become controversial in recent years for some parents, who believe shots are triggers for a variety of illnesses. On the other hand, public health groups fear declining vaccination rates could lead to resurgence of infectious diseases such as measles and pertussis and that unvaccinated children can pose a threat to other kids with compromised immune systems. Medical researchers also have found no link between immunizations and such conditions as autism.

HB 14-1288 is backed by more than 30 state medical, education and advocacy groups, ranging from the Colorado Children’s Campaign to Children’s Hospital to Democrats for Education Reform, not to mention hospitals and medical societies.

Colorado has a relatively high rate of unvaccinated children, 4.3 percent, according to bill sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.

State law requires certain vaccinations for enrollment in licensed daycare centers, schools and colleges. But parents may opt out of vaccinating their children for religious or medical reasons, or merely because of a “personal belief” opposed to vaccination.

HB 14-1288 would require parents who want to use the personal belief option to either obtain a form signed by a medical professional certifying the parents have received written information about the risks and benefits of immunizations or have completed an online vaccination information program. The bill wouldn’t eliminate the personal belief opt out.

There were stark contrasts among the 45 witnesses who testified, with businesslike panels of doctors, childcare professionals, educators and parents supporting the bill. A much larger cast of opponents, many of whom identified themselves just as mothers or fathers, told sobering and emotional stories of their children’s severe reactions to shots, of autism, of disabilities and even of death.

(At the end of the evening, Pabon read the long list of supporting organizations, saying, “We kept the pro testimony very short. … We could have easily packed the room with proponents.”)

The contrasts were exemplified by two witnesses.

Dr. Jim Todd, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and the University of Colorado Medical Center, said, “Our analysis of Colorado data over many years shows that vaccines are safe and effective,” noting “there’s a lot of misinformation that circulates.”

But Michael Gaeta, an acupuncturist and nutritionist, argued, “Vaccines do more harm than good” and that vaccines “have not eliminated or prevented any diseases.” Gaeta and several other opposition witnesses criticized the alleged self-interest of drug companies in pushing vaccines.

Opponents also argued that the notifications would just be used to pressure parents to have their children vaccinated. Others said they suspect the bill is just a step toward outlawing parental opt-out. Most of the opponents arrived at the witness table with stacks of reports and other paperwork for the committee. Critics also called the bill an attack on personal liberty and parent choice.

But the last witness, Sundari Kraft of a group called Vaccinate for Healthy Schools, said children need “freedom from” the risk of infectious diseases as much as some parents need “freedom to” opt out.

Supporters said the bill wouldn’t discriminate against people who have sincere objections but is rather aimed at those parents who opt out purely for convenience because they don’t want to take the time to have their kids vaccinated, for instance.

Things got heated late in the hearing when witness Mary Hendrick intimated that committee member Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, has a conflict of interest because his wife works for a pharmaceutical company.

Chair Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, calmly came to McNulty’s defense, saying, “I have no reason to expect that Rep. McNulty would have anything but the utmost integrity in voting on this bill.” (Another witness tried to raise the same issue later, but McCann cut her off, again very politely.)

Another element of the bill would have required schools to publicly report the percentage of students who aren’t vaccinated. That provision was criticized by opponents as something that could lead to bullying of kids who haven’t had their shots. The committee approved an amendment that only would require such information be provided on request.

Read the bill text here and a legislative staff summary here.

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