ELLSWORTH — A bill to end non-medical exemptions for vaccinations has cleared a hurdle in the state Legislature.
In Augusta last Wednesday, the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee approved the bill in an 8-5 party line vote, with Democrats voting in favor. It will now head to the Legislature for a full vote.
The bill under consideration would not force parents to vaccinate their children. It would, however, bar children who have not received certain vaccines from attending school unless parents or guardians can prove there is a medical reason why their children should be exempt.
Much of the debate at the committee work session on the bill centered on the balance of individual rights and public welfare.
“We all recognize that we have a common interest that we’re trying to achieve for the greater good,” said Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland).
Vaccination, Brennan said, “trumps the individual argument that somebody has a right to jeopardize a larger number of people because of that individual right, in particular when we talk about public school systems.”
Brennan continued: “We have to make decisions in 2019 that are for the greater good, and this is one of those.”
But other committee members disagreed. Republican Rep. Gary Drinkwater of Milford, who voted against the bill, said that while he comes “from a family that absolutely believes in vaccination … I don’t think that we should be squeezing the civil rights of the religious community.”
Near the end of the discussion, Rep. Shelley Rudnicki (R-Fairfield) wondered about the “lack of liability for the vax industry.”
Rudnicki was referring to a law passed in the early 1980s (and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011) that protects vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits.
The law also established the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which provides payments to those alleged to have been injured by certain vaccines.
The program is funded by a tax on each dose of vaccine and was created in 1986 after lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers and health care providers threatened to cause vaccine shortages and reduce vaccination rates.
The fund has paid out a total of $4.1 billion since 1988, compensating 4,291 individuals, according to its website.
“This means for every 1 million doses of vaccine that were distributed, one individual was compensated,” according to the site.
“The United States has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history,” write officials at the administration. “In the majority of cases, vaccines cause no side effects, however they can occur, as with any medication — but most are mild. Very rarely, people experience more serious side effects, like allergic reactions.”
Authors of the site note that just because a petitioner has been compensated does not mean a vaccine has been found to cause an alleged injury.
The majority of the funds (80 percent) are distributed in cases where a settlement has been negotiated in a desire to resolve cases quickly and minimize loss, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Voluntary vaccination exemption rates, which include those granted for philosophical and religious reasons, rose among Maine kindergartners this school year, from roughly 5 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 5.6 percent in 2018-19. Opt-out rates were particularly high in Hancock County, with nearly 10 percent of kindergartners exempt from vaccinations in 2018-2019.
The vast majority of the exemptions were granted for philosophical reasons, rather than religious or medical.