A bill to make it harder for parents to avoid vaccinating their children advanced in the California Legislature on Wednesday, as hundreds of anti-vaccine families packed into the state Capitol to protest the legislation.
Senate Bill 276 would require the state health department to review and then either approve or deny all medical exemptions to school immunization requirements. It would also create a database to track doctors who issue a disproportionate number of exemptions.
The bill passed 6 to 2 in the Senate Health Committee after almost six hours of testimony and debate. It will head next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Over 100 doctors, medical students, parents and hospital representatives attended the hearing on Wednesday to voice their support for the bill, which was introduced by Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan. Hundreds of families, and a handful of doctors, also showed up in opposition to the legislation.
Pan, who is also a physician, has said he believes some families have circumvented California law by seeking out doctors willing to write fraudulent medical exemptions.
“We witnessed physicians who advertised exemptions for cash on social media and the internet,” Pan said at Wednesday’s hearing, according to KQED. “We’d see some parents post on social media that their child’s regular physician refused to grant their child a medical exemption so they traveled to go purchase one from a distant physician.”
California is one of just three states in the country, along with West Virginia and Mississippi, that don’t allow families to opt children out immunization for religious or philosophical reasons. West Virginia also authorizes its public health department to vet medical exemptions.
Some opponents to the California bill said it would violate patient-physician confidentiality.
“Patients have a right to have their medical treatment determined by their doctor, not a governmental appointee,” said Nicole Shorrock, a Sacramento pediatrician, at the hearing. “This bill will essentially destroy the sanctity of a doctor-patient relationship.”
Others said the bill would force some families into home-schooling.
“With these restrictions, this would force us to either take a gamble with our sons or it would put us in the difficult position of pulling my kids from public school,” said Adriane Hoeft, who said her 10-year-old son was paralyzed as an infant after receiving a series of vaccines, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Children in California must be immunized in order to attend public or private schools, though the state permits exemptions if a physician identifies a medical reason for a child to skip some or all vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines reasons for medical exemptions, which can vary from vaccine to vaccine, but can include factors like whether a child has been in a coma, is undergoing chemotherapy or has life-threatening allergies.
Immunization rates for children entering kindergarten in California are high ― currently about 95% statewide, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. But the number of students receiving medical exemptions to vaccines has risen in recent years, and public health officials are on high alert amid the worst measles outbreak the country has witnessed since the disease was contained in 2000.
As of Wednesday, 695 measles cases had been reported this year across 22 states, the CDC said.
California has confirmed at least 38 measles cases this year, with outbreaks recently declared in Los Angeles and Butte counties. Wednesday’s hearing also coincided with health officials confirming a new outbreak in Sacramento County.