SALEM — A bill to remove nonmedical exemptions for schoolchildren not inoculated for communicable diseases passed its first legislative hurdle Thursday.
The House Committee on Health Care voted 7-4 to approve House Bill 3063, which bars children from public and private schools if not immunized for measles and other diseases. Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, is one of the bill’s chief co-sponsors.
“This was an important step in the journey to protect student health in our schools,” Helt said in a statement after the vote.
“If passed by both chambers,” she continued, “this bill will save lives and will further guarantee the safety of our students. It’s time to replace the discredited idea that these vaccines are dangerous and ineffective with scientifically grounded, fact-based public policy.”
The bill goes to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means for an analysis of its financial impact. If approved there, it would come up for a likely contentious House floor vote.
Oregon is one of 17 states that allow students to attend school if they are not inoculated for personal, philosophical or religious reasons.
Helt said she was motivated to sponsor the legislation because of a recent outbreak of measles that has sickened over 70 people in southwest Washington. A small number of cases have been found in Oregon.
Helt has pointed to statistics from the Deschutes County Health Services Department showing nonmedical exemptions among kindergartners in Deschutes County have risen from 0.4 percent in 2000-01 to 11.6 percent in 2017-18. That’s the fourth-highest percentage of Oregon’s 36 counties. The statewide percentage is 7.5 percent.
Several proposed amendments by Republican lawmakers opposed to the bill were rejected by committee vote.
The panel did approve an amendment requested by Helt. It would allow children who are not inoculated for nonmedical reasons to attend online schools. It bars non-inoculated children from attending school-related activities that would put them in contact with other individuals. It would allow a child who is not immunized and has not provided documentation of a medical diagnosis exemption, to continue to attend school until Aug. 1, 2020.
Several Republican opponents of the bill spoke during the debate over the final committee vote.
“I find this bill to be far overreaching,” said Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg. “I have five children who are vaccinated. But I believe in parental rights.”
Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, said she was disappointed the legislation appeared on its way to approval.
“I did not expect to be part of something I think is a complete disregard to the individual freedoms we have,” she said.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of the bill, who has a Ph.D. in health system organization, said inoculations had extended the lifespan of Americans.
“The science is firmly behind it,” he said.
Greenlick recounted how his father — born in 1900 — had survived bouts of communicable diseases that can be prevented by inoculations.
“The fact is that what we have has done as a community has wiped out that scourge,” he said.
During a news conference earlier Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown said she supported the bill.
“I just have to say, if we want healthy and safe communities, we have to make sure all kids are healthy and safe, and that means vaccinations,” Brown said.
Acknowledging the tense debate over the issue, Brown offered “kudos” to Helt and Greenlick, who she said “stand up for legislation that needs to happen.”
Brown also said she “absolutely” supported the emergency clause in the bill, which would have it go into effect July 1, in time for the new school year.
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