Oregon’s House of Representatives has approved a bill to make the state’s vaccine laws among the most stringent in the nation.
In a chamber packed with opponents — and with occasional laughter and jeers from the gallery — Democrats muscled through House Bill 3063 on a 35-25 vote. Two Republicans supported the bill, and five Democrats voted against the majority of their party.
With House passage, HB 3063 is eligible for a vote in the full Senate in coming days. Until then, state senators can expect to be inundated with calls and emails from a vocal and passionate group of parents who worry that mandatory vaccines could be harmful. That movement has made the bill among the most contentious this session.
The tension was in evidence during roughly two hours of debate on Monday.
Supporting lawmakers painted the bill as a common-sense proposal that will protect young children and those with compromised immune systems from events such as the measles outbreak that played out in Southwest Washington earlier this year. Many noted that vaccines had drastically cut down child mortality from preventable diseases in the last century.
“We owe our children the ability to survive,” said state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, one of the bill’s chief sponsors. “That means we need to be able to ensure as many as possible are vaccinated.”
Opponents, for the most part, downplayed the recent outbreak and noted that its impact in Oregon was limited. They argued that HB 3063 will impede the ability of parents to make choices about their children’s health care.
“The Oregon Health Authority and the public health departments have done such a poor job convincing the residents of Oregon on the value of vaccines that they need the power of the government to come in and mandate it,” said Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer.
If it becomes law, HB 3063 will make Oregon the fourth state in the country with no philosophical or religious exemptions available to parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids — or want to vaccinate them on a slowed-down timeline.
Currently, thousands of parents use those exemptions, with a nation-leading 7.5% of Oregon kindergartners claiming at least one. If the proposed changes become law, those parents would need to receive a medical exemption or vaccinate their children in order to enroll them in schools statewide by August 2020.
The bill also would change the process for obtaining medical exemptions, requiring parents to get a doctor's signoff annually. Proponents say the bill would actually streamline the process because local public health departments would have reduced oversight. Parents who've rallied against the proposal disagree with that interpretation.
Many lawmakers who spoke about the bill Monday shared personal stories in explaining their stance.
Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-North Coast, said she had a brain tumor removed as a toddler. She noted that the surgery was an option, not a state mandate. But she drew a distinction.
“I don’t believe vaccines as a requirement for school attendance is the same thing,” Mitchell said. “My brain tumor was not a communicable disease that I could spread to other students on the playground.”
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, said his son developed a serious rash after receiving the vaccine for chickenpox. He did not get the boy a second shot.
“If this bill passes, what am I going to do?” said Zika, who added that doctors have indicated the rash would not be reason enough for a medical exemption. “Will I chance putting him through that, maybe something worse? That’s an awkward and awful place to be as a parent.”
While the vote went largely along party lines, some Democrats voiced misgivings about the breadth of HB 3063.
"I believe in the science behind vaccines and I believe in the importance of community immunity," said state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland."What we are experiencing on the ground is an outbreak of measles. If this were a mandate of the [measles] vaccine…. I would support it. HB 3063 goes well beyond that."
Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, said she'd vaccinated her own kids, but she worried the bill would limit school choice for too many children. Under the bill, unvaccinated kids could attend online schools or be homeschooled, but Sollman said that wouldn't be ideal for some students.
“Removing private options in this bill will hurt students and their education,” she said.
In the end, though, the majority of the chamber agreed with the medical community, which overwhelmingly supports the bill. During the Southwest Washington measles outbreak, public health officials repeatedly noted that vaccinations are the easiest way to avoid similar public health crises.
“Parents have a right not to vaccinate their children, but do not have a right to put other children in the community at risk,” said Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn, who is a nurse.
According to the CDC, 2019 is the worst year for measles in 25 years, with more than 700 confirmed cases around the United States. The outbreak has prompted a host of states to consider stricter rules on vaccines, but few if any would go as far as Oregon’s proposal.
A bill in Maine that would have ended nonmedical exemptions there has been narrowed, while legislation in Washington only tightens rules for the measles vaccine. A Colorado bill appears to have died in the face of strong opposition.
In Oregon, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers, HB 3063 appears likely to pass. Asked recently about the prospects of the legislation, Gov. Kate Brown sounded optimistic.
“I will be signing that bill,” she said.