5.15.2015 – The Philosophical Exemption, Raw Milk, and End of Session

At the time of this writing, there is still hope that we can adjourn this week. While we are honored to fulfill our responsibility here in Montpelier, many of us have family events such as graduations to attend. We also have jobs that we need to get back to including shearing sheep and goats for yours truly!

It has been a long week with at least one tough issue to debate, that being the elimination of the option for parents to choose the philosophical exemption in order to not have their children vaccinated. The question might be asked why we were having this debate since the vaccination rate in Vermont is high. The goal of the Department of Health is to maintain a vaccination rate of at least 95% in the State in order to maintain “herd immunity”. As a whole, the rate is good but there are pockets in the State with relatively low immunization rates and that is worrying to some health care professionals.

The long debate was wide-ranging with a non-partisan vote in the end but not before Rep. Anne Donahue offered an amendment that would have created a non-medical exemption. This seemed like a good compromise because it would have required parents who want to forgo vaccinations for their children to go through a process that provided information and education about the value of vaccines. This amendment was defeated on a two-vote margin.

During the debate, we heard stories about children with challenged immune systems as the result of illnesses like leukemia, who would like to attend school but may have difficulties if classmates are not immunized. We also heard of children who were harmed or died as a result of a vaccine. Already this year, $154 million has been paid out in vaccine-related damages. Another thing to keep in mind is that vaccines are not 100% effective. Of 100 children vaccinated for pertussis, 15 will get the disease, so there are no guarantees for those students with compromised immune systems.

As a parent, I had my children vaccinated. I made some thoughtful choices about which ones to get and because my kids were breast-fed, I waited to start the process until they were a little older. At the time (30-some odd years ago), I was advised by my children’s health care provider that only one dose of the pertussis vaccine was necessary to establish immunity and that pertussis was a vaccine more likely to cause the actual illness it was meant to prevent so we got one dose of DPT and the rest DT. The point is that we educated ourselves and made an informed choice. It is my belief that the Donahue amendment would have created that kind of environment.

My vote against eliminating the philosophical exemption was to maintain choice. Because there is a risk involved with vaccines, I did not feel comfortable eliminating that choice. I don’t want to mandate something that may cause harm to a child – I feel strongly that a parent must make an informed choice for their own children. As it stands now, those who might have chosen the philosophical exemption still have the option to choose the religious exemption.

A highlight this week was the concurrence with the Senate on H.35, the Water Quality bill. The differences between the two bodies were worked out so that a Committee of Conference was not necessary. This bill has been a long time coming and it is a real feather in Rep. David Deen’s cap who has been working on this issue for decades.

The end of the Session requires long days with a “hurry up and wait” schedule. The last few days find me at the State House at least 12-14 hours per day or longer. We convene in the morning and take up whatever the Senate has sent us. We then recess for several hours and reconvene. This pattern repeats itself several times until well into the evening. These days can be full of excitement and intrigue if you still have a bill in the works. If not, it is a time to clean your desks, pack up the car, visit and debrief with colleagues, and think about all of the things that need to be done at home.

Our agricultural “housekeeping” bill, H.484, did make it through the process, which means that Tier 2 raw milk producers will be able to expand sales. Farmers are currently required to send their milk samples for testing twice a month in the containers in which they are sold. This frequently means that half gallon mason jars have to be delivered, which is wasteful, not necessary, and doesn’t prove much. Once the governor signs the bill farmers will be able to send their milk in lab-approved vials that may be sent by mail or courier service. We eliminated the need for a farm visit for biosecurity reasons and have increased the amount of milk a producer can sell from 280 to 350 gallons a week. We have changed the requirements for TB and Brucellosis testing to initial testing of all ruminants on the farm and any new animals that enter the farm, even if they are born there. Formerly, we required yearly testing, which did not make sense and cost a lot of money. We have also codified the requirements for high test results using the standards that were in place before the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets changed their policy last fall. We thank the Agency for working on this with us and coming up with something that allows for expanded market opportunity for farmers while maintaining a safe raw milk supply.

As I wrap up this article, the Budget bill has been concluded and we believe we have an agreement on the Revenue bill that all parties, including the governor, can accept.