Senate Health limits vaccine exemptions to private & parochial schools

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

The Senate Health Committee, led by two physician-senators–Dr. Mike Maroney and Dr. Tom Takubo–took up HB5105 on Wednesday afternoon while an audience full of doctors say nearby. As the bill came from the House of Delegates, it provided a religious exemption to any child in any school in the state to immunizations laws. 

A strike-and-insert amendment drastically changed the bill. According to committee counsel, the new bill would limit a vaccine exemption to private and parochial schools. 

Senator Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) asked if that meant the religious exemption had been removed from the bill? 

Counsel replied affirmatively, saying private and parochial schools would be free to set their own policies. They could require immunizations or not. But public schools would not be affected. 

Sen. Takubo (R-Kanawha) called on Dr. Lisa Costello to testify. As a pediatrician at West Virginia University Medical School and the past president of the WV State Medical Association, Costello spoke in opposition to the original bill and the amended version. 

 “Any public policy that could potentially lower those rates open the doors to let in preventable diseases that we we fortunately haven’t seen many cases of,” she told senators. 

Takubo asked her if children would be put at harm by these proposed policies? 

“It does,” she replied. “Immunizations works. What makes it work is high rates of immunizations around us…Herd immunity means that we rely on those around us to keep diseases out.”

Utilizing the example of car seats, she argued that government requirements can save lives and money. “I want to do everything I can as a parent to protect my child,” she said.  

Next, two doctors spoke in favor of the proposed changes. 

Dr. Alvin Moss, a nephrologist also at WVU Medicine, spoke from a perspective of medical ethics, saying, “Coercion destroys true informed consent. Mandatory policy goes against the idea of informed consent.” He opposes the current system requiring childhood immunizations. 

Dr. Chandra Adkins, a pharmacist and member of West Virginians for Health Freedom from Beckley, told senators, “I want to educate my children in light of God’s word. God’s word is the foundation of my life.”

While the revised bill didn’t go as far as she liked, she remained supportive of the amended version. “We’re gonna allow private schools to live out their convictions. Praise the Lord for that. My kids do attend private school. The first authority in my life is the Bible. I’m thankful to have this bill. It’s good to give options…I’m not worried about measles.” 

Next, Dr. Steven Eschenauer of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department spoke against both forms of the bill, saying, “This bill would open the door and allow these diseases back in our community…We don’t want to revert to becoming a third world state.”

Maroney called for a vote on the strike-and-insert amendment at the conclusion of debate. In a voice vote, both yeas and nays were heard. However, no one motioned for a count and Maroney called the vote for the yeas. That process was mirrored in the final vote. 

In comments after the vote, Maroney said, “I requested a fiscal note on this bill. It’s $20,000-$80,000 for a measles case. An outbreak would cost millions. I haven’t gotten it yet.” 

He continued, “I would not be able to sleep if I didn’t say this. This bill would not be on the agenda if it was only my choice. I took an oath to do no harm. In my heart I believe we are doing harm to the state.” He them immediately exited the meeting via the back door.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor, where senators who favored the vaccine exemption may try to amend it back to that form. It’s unclear if they would have the votes to accomplish that. Then, if the bill changes at all in the Senate, it would have to return to the House. 

The session concludes at midnight on Saturday. Stay tuned to RealWV for updates on HB5105.

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