by Anna Maria Barry-Jester
AS California lawmakers attempt to tighten the rules on childhood vaccinations, they’re getting pushback from unexpected quarters: high-profile officials who support vaccines.
In the past few weeks, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and the members of the Medical Board of California have questioned a bill that would give the California Department of Public Health authority to decide whether a child can skip routine vaccinations.
Anti-vaccine activists have capitalized on these moments, plastering Facebook pages and social media with praise for the officials’ statements.
But those officials are not against vaccinations. In fact, they have made clear they’re committed to vaccines, and to dealing with the problem the bill is supposed to fix — doctors providing kids with medical exemptions for reasons that don’t meet federal standards.
“Having been in public health for a long time, I am a huge supporter of vaccines,” said Dr. Michelle Bholat, a family medicine physician in Santa Monica and until recently a member of the medical board, which has oversight over physicians and their licenses.
What concerns her, she said at a late-May meeting of the board, was the measure’s potential effect on doctor-patient relationships and the particulars of who would qualify for a medical exemption.
Pediatrician and state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) introduced the bill to address a spike in the number of children who have been granted what he calls “fake” medical exemptions from vaccinations; more than five times as many kids have medical exemptions this past school year than in 2015-16.
SB 276 would give the final say on medical exemption applications to the state public health department, which would be required to follow guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any exemptions provided by doctors would be subject to approval — or denial — by the department.
The only other state that gives control of vaccine exemptions to a public health agency is West Virginia.
The measure passed the state Senate in May and is awaiting consideration in the state Assembly.
The debate over the measure comes as new state data shows that the percentage of kindergartners who had all their recommended shots fell for the second straight year, largely due to an increase in medical exemptions written by doctors.
During the past school year, the share of fully vaccinated kindergartners dropped to 94.8%, down from 95.6% in 2016-17, putting the state in potentially dangerous territory — officials recommend 90-95% coverage for community immunity.
And as vaccination rates dip, measles is spreading nationwide. In the largest outbreak since 1992, more than 1,000 people have been infected across the country this year through June 5, including 51 in California.
Nearly three years ago, California enacted a law by Pan that bars parents from citing personal or religious beliefs to avoid vaccinating their children. Children could be exempted only on medical grounds if the shots were harmful to their health.
That ban improved vaccination rates, though progress has been slipping.
Today, many of the schools that had the highest rates of unvaccinated students before the law took effect still do. Doctors have broad authority to grant medical exemptions from vaccination; some wield that power liberally and sometimes for cash, signing dozens or hundreds of exemptions for children, sometimes in far-off communities.
Pan’s bill would crack down on this practice and has the strong support of the medical establishment. It was co-sponsored by two powerful doctor associations, the American Academy of Pediatrics, California, and the California Medical Association.
“We want to make sure unscrupulous physicians aren’t making medical exemptions for money,” said Dr. David Aizuss, the president of the California Medical Association. “The idea of the bill is to protect a real personal medical exemption, where kids are on chemotherapy or have an immunological response.”
But it has its critics — and this time, they extend beyond the small but fervent group of people who continue to question the extensive scientific evidence that shows vaccines are safe. And although raising concerns is typical in the legislative process, their criticisms take on outsize importance with a subject as explosive as vaccines.
The biggest name among the new critics is Newsom, who said he’s worried about interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. “I like doctor-patient relationships. Bureaucratic relationships are more challenging for me,” he said at the state Democratic Party convention in early June.
“I’m a parent; I don’t want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family.”
State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), a co-sponsor of Pan’s previous legislation, abstained from voting on the new measure last month, saying he’d made commitments during the previous fight to leave medical exemptions to the discretion of doctors.
Last month, the Medical Board of California offered just lukewarm support, and only to portions of the bill, after listening to 200 members of the public speak against it for more than two hours.
The board members called on Pan to address a variety of concerns, from the potential oversight role the state public health department might play, to the proposed guidelines for medical exemptions.
They agreed on one thing: It should be easier for the board to investigate complaints of questionable medical exemptions. To look into complaints, the board needs to see medical records. To get those records, it generally needs permission from patients or their guardians, something parents who have sought medical exemptions are often unwilling to provide. The bill would give the board access to these records.
One physician, Dr. Bob Sears in Orange County, a well-known opponent to vaccine mandates, was put on probation in 2018 for writing an exemption for a 2-year-old without taking any medical history. Since 2016, at least 173 complaints against physicians for inappropriate exemptions have been filed with the state medical board, with more than 100 currently under investigation, the board said.
Medical exemptions for California kids are clustered in certain communities and schools. In Humboldt County, 5.8% of kindergartners have medical exemptions from shots, according to the new state data. In Nevada County, the rate is 10.6%. All told, nearly one-third of the state’s counties have fallen below 95% immunity from measles.
Aizuss of the California Medical Association said the organization is working with Newsom’s office and the medical board, among others, to update the bill so that it will be “workable, effective and supported by the governor.”
“I think that our goal is the same,” he said. “The idea of the bill is to protect … the sanctity of the true physician-patient relationship, as opposed to a relationship where physicians were granting the medical exemption for a fee, which is not a true physician-patient relationship.”
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.