Tag Archives: philosophical exemption

Kesha Ram wants none of that anti-vaxxer stuff

Note: I’ve received a further response from Mr. Batham, which has been added to the post below.

Not long after I posted my previous entry about David Zuckerman and Kesha Ram, I got a phone call from Brandon Batham, who runs Ram’s campaign for lieutenant governor. He wanted to assure me that Rep. Ram is not an anti-vaxxer, and sent along this statement via email:

Kesha fully believes in and accepts the science behind vaccinations. She is not an “anti-vaxxer.” As an 8-year State Representative, her goal is to keep our children—collectively and individually—healthy and safe. This will also be her goal as Lieutenant Governor.

Kesha remains concerned that parents opposed to vaccines will claim the religious exemption and remove their children from our medical and education systems. That is why she voted for an amendment presented by Rep. Ann Donahue that would have required parents to consult with a health care provider and review educational materials on the benefits of vaccines in order to receive an exemption.

She is in favor of removing both the philosophical and religious exemptions to vaccinations, and replacing them with an exemption request made in consultation with a medical professional related to adverse health effects.

I’ve sent Brandon an email requesting a bit of clarification, especially on whether she plans to pursue changes in the vaccination law as a legislator or, potentially, as lieutenant governor. I’ll update this post when I get a reply. Reply now received; see below.

Otherwise, okay, she’s not an anti-vaxxer. I still have some concerns, though.

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Your next lieutenant governor might just be an anti-vaxxer

Note for those freshly landing on this page: Please also see subsequent post with response from Rep. Kesha Ram.

Interesting factoid about the Democratic candidates to succeed Phil Scott. One, Garrett Graff, is in day three of radio silence following reports that he may not qualify to run. One, Brandon Riker, must prove he can be competitive despite a lack of experience and little name recognition. As for the other two?

They each voted “No” on the bill that removes the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccinations.

State Sen. David Zuckerman’s opposition was widely noted, as he made a last-ditch maneuver to derail the bill in the Senate, asserting that the science on vaccine safety is “disputed.”

Well, I guess he’s right that it’s “disputed.” But not by the broad scientific consensus and decades of real-world experience.

Less noted at the time was the “No” vote cast by State Rep. Kesha Ram. As far as I can tell, she kind of went under the radar with her opposition.

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How the philosophical exemption was lost

A few weeks ago, the state legislature had apparently decided not to open the Pandora’s box of vaccination policy. The general feeling was, let’s let the 2012 law play out a while longer and see where it goes.

And then, for reasons still unexplained, a couple of key state Senators (Kevin Mullin and John Campbell) grabbed that box and threw it open. They amended a barely-related Health Department housekeeping bill, H.98, to include an end to the philosophical exemption on childhood immunizations. The Senate Health Care Committee gave it a mere two hours of hearings, one for and one against; it sailed through the committee and the full Senate.

Even so, it seemed likely that the House would let the amended bill lie. Leadership decided to have the House Health Care Committee hold hearings on H.98, even though the bill was never officially given to that committee. Those hearings were quickly scheduled, and they were quite extensive. At the time, it seemed like a ploy to run out the clock. Even more so as the hearings continued through the penultimate week of the session.

Funny thing, though: the more time passed, the more things seemed to shift entirely. By the end of last week, the momentum was clearly on H.98’s side. A House vote seemed certain and passage seemed likely, if not a sure thing. Monday’s public hearing was a chance for all parties to sound off, without actually affecting the process.

Which brings us to Tuesday, covered in my previous post. The Donahue amendment lost by the narrowest of margins, and then H.98 passed the House with ease.

This time, I’m here to explain why this happened. Not how it happened; you’d have to get John Campbell and Shap Smith into a rubber room and fill ’em full of truth serum to find that out. As for the why, here’s my two cents. Or three, if you prefer.

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Missed it by that much

Anne Donahue had a clever plan.

Notice I say “clever,” not “smart.” The Donahue amendment was a last-ditch attempt to derail H.98, the bill that would end the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccinations.

The amendment would have combined the philosophical and religious exemptions, and put more obstacles in the way of those seeking an exemption: reading educational materials, watching a video, having an in-person consultation with a health care practitioner. Donahue argued that these obstacles would achieve the goal of raising immunization rates without sacrificing parental choice.

It was clever because it played on lawmakers’ fears of taking a definitive stand, fears that are always amplified when there’s a loud and focused opposition.

It wasn’t smart because it would have done nothing to raise immunization rates.

I can say that with confidence because if the House had adopted the amendment, it would have been at odds with the Senate. With the Legislature careening toward adjournment and many pressing issues still unresolved, it’s a virtual certainty that H.98 would have been quietly shelved.

Of course, Donahue had to know that.

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It’s looking like the vaccine bill will get a vote — UPDATED

Although I favor repealing the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccinations, I’ve been predicting that the issue will be pulled from the House calendar due to (1) time constraints and (2) unwillingness to tackle yet another controversy.

Looks like I was wrong.

House Speaker Shap Smith was on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning, and he indicated that the vaccine bill (H.98) would be up for a vote on Tuesday. In his own typically oblique way; if pressed on his answer, I’m sure he’d say that he didn’t promise a vote on Tuesday. Here are his exact words:

It’s very possible that it could come to a vote on Tuesday in the House. It’s not a caucus issue; I don’t think it’s a caucus issue on either side. It looks to me that there is signifant support to remove the philosophical exemption; I think there’s some room around that to maybe give people time to address that. I don’t know when the implementation date will be for it, whether there needs to be a transition plan for schools. There are a number of internal issues that we’ve got to deal with, but it would not surprise me to see that come to the floor next week.

Cute. The guy who’s in charge of scheduling the calendar says “it would not surprise me” to see the bill pop up on the calendar. Hahaha.

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Here’s an interesting fact about vaccines

Earlier this week, we had the honor of hosting a real live ***KENNEDY*** right in our very own Statehouse. Yep, RFK Jr. regaled us with his scare stories about the evils of Thimerosal, a vaccine additive containing (a harmless type of) mercury. It seemed a stretch at the time because (1) the autism/Thimerosal “connection” has been thoroughly debunked, and (2) Thimerosal was eliminated from all but one vaccine years ago, and yet autism rates have continued to climb since then.

But here’s something I didn’t learn until today:

The one vaccine containing Thimerosal is not on Vermont’s list of required vaccines.

That’s right. You don’t need a philosophical exemption to avoid the imaginary taint of Thimerosal. Which means that Kennedy’s argument was completely irrelevant to our current policy debate.

In any event, Kennedy seems to have done his cause no good. There’s no sign he moved the needle (sorry); in fact, he may have turned off some undecideds with his overheated rhetoric. Like, for instance, the editorial board of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald:

Kennedy’s strident language added nothing to the debate. He had discredited himself even before he arrived in Montpelier by furthering the damaging and discredited notion that there is a connection between vaccines and autism. The author of the paper asserting that connection has himself admitted to scientific fraud.

But I think it’s worth noting for the record that Kennedy’s bugbear, Thimerosal, has no bearing at all on the philosophical-exemption issue.

Shumlin on vaccine exemption bill: No, but maybe, but yes, or possibly N/A

Today, State Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen testified before the House Health Care Committee on H.98, a bill that would do a number of things but most famously end the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccines.

I’ll be writing about that hearing in a while, but first… After the hearing, Chen spoke with a small pack of reporters: Dave Gram, Paris Achen, me. Most of the conversation was about Gov. Shumlin’s position on H.98. And as Gram and Achen have reported, Chen characterized the Governor as “neutral” on the bill.

Which in itself was news, because in 2012 Shumlin blocked a bill to end the philosophical exemption. Instead, he supported a bill to improve data collection and educational efforts on vaccination.

Since then, he has said he wanted to allow time to let that law work before reopening the question. But this year he hasn’t closed the door to ending the philosophical exemption; he’s just expressed a desire not to have the debate.

So here’s what Chen said today, and it goes beyond mere neutrality.

I think the Governor’s position is that he’s neutral; he understands that the Legislature has decided to take this up, and will support whatever comes out of this Legislature. And if there are other things, you should ask him, not me.

I read that as an affirmation that Shumlin will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Of course, it was only yesterday that Shumlin told reporters “I don’t expect the vaccination bill to get to me.” Profiles in courage?

Right now, the House is considering whether to concur with the Senate amendment that would eliminate the philosophical exemption. After three days of testimony, the Health Care Committee has scheduled a public hearing Monday at 5:30. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday the 16th. House leaders could hold a vote on H.98 next week; they could also decide to kick the can down the road and save the Governor the trouble of deciding where he stands.

The circus came to town

The corridors of the Statehouse were abuzz Tuesday. Seems that all and sundry were talking about the appearance of a real live Kennedy — RFK, Jr. to be precise. He was in Montpelier to testify about the evils of vaccines and the necessity for parental choice as the last line of defense against the predations of Big Pharma and the corrupt regulators in the industry’s pocket, all conspiring to strap ’em down and shoot ’em up.

I believe that’s the mission statement of the Centers for Disease Control. You know, the secret one they chant before their confidential off-site meetings with their Big Pharma masters. Yeah, them.

But I digress. Kennedy, a widely respected environmental activist turned vaccine truther crank, testified before the House Health Care Committee and also held a media briefing. Both attracted overflow crowds. I contented myself with a quiet afternoon at House Government Operations, listening to embattled liquor control chief Mike Hogan defend his honor. Well, not really, but more on that another time.

I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to cram myself into the Son Of A Great Man’s presence because when I heard he was coming to Vermont, I did some reading to find out what he was going to say.

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Bad day to be a pro-science liberal

As reported earlier, the State Senate has passed a bill that would strike the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccines. And unfortunately for my faith in Senate liberals, opposition to the measure was led — on the flimsiest of grounds — by some of the chamber’s leading lefties. To wit, David Zuckerman, Anthony Pollina, and Ann Cummings.

The bill itself faces an uncertain future. The House briefly considered ending the philosophical exemption earlier in the session and did nothing; supposedly, House leadership is disinclined to stop doing nothing, so this whole thing might have been an elaborate shadow play produced, God knows why, by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.

(It was he who raised this idea from the dead and allowed it to be attached to H.98, a “housekeeping” bill enacting a bunch of minor changes to various parts of state government including the vaccine registry. Thus the justification for grafting the philosophical exemption ban, Frankenstein-style, to a wisp of a bill. Kind of a crappy way to change the law, but not exactly unusual in the annals of lawmaking. Why Campbell went out of his way to do this in a very busy session, I have no idea.)

The bill passed on a very one-sided voice vote. Before that, there was a standing vote on adding the amendment to the bill; the tally was 18 yes, 11 no.

The “noes” brought together some strange bedfellows: some of the most liberal solons joined some of the most conservative in opposing the amendment.

Preceding the vote was about a half hour of rather weird debate in which some folks I usually admire came up with flimsy pretexts for their opposition. Leading this parade was Zuckerman, who offered a science-free amendment to the amendment.

On the grounds that some children may be genetically predisposed to allergic reactions to some vaccine ingredients, he proposed requiring “quick genetic tests” to screen out the allergic.

My scientist readers may be laughing their asses off right now. A “quick genetic test” to screen for allergies to the, what, hundreds of ingredients in various vaccines? As I understand it, such testing is in the very early stages of development. But even if it were well-established, I doubt it would be “quick.”

Thankfully, the Zuckerman Amendment was shot down on a voice vote.

Cummings then raised the specter of uncounted Vermont schoolchildren being forced into “truancy” because their parents refused to let them be vaccinated. She argued that in a time when student counts are in decline, we shouldn’t do something that might mean more kids are “forced out of school.”

Uh-huh. I can just imagine the legions of parents who would actually take their kids out of school rather than allow them to be vaccinated.

Zuckerman followed the same line, predicting lower student enrollments, higher taxes, and even widespread school closures because so many refusenik parents would keep their kids home.

Pollina doubled down, arguing that we shouldn’t require vaccinations because “people might move out of state” rather than see their kids vaccinated.

Okay, let’s see now. First, all our neighboring states — Massachusetts, New York, and “Live Free Or Die” New Hampshire don’t allow philosophical exemptions. So the claptrap Pollina is peddling is that legions of vaccine refuseniks will uproot their lives and move to a distant state that offers a philosophical exemption. (There are only 18 others that do.)

One of the primary arguments made by exemption supporters is that it doesn’t hurt anybody because so few people actually seek an exemption; less than four percent of Vermont parents have done so. How many of them would take the extreme step of dislocating their lives or home-schooling their kids rather than let them be vaccinated?

It wouldn’t be a mass exodus, let’s put it that way.

Zuckerman produced a map, showing that some small districts have high rates of philosophical exemptions. He said that those schools would be especially vulnerable if exemptions were limited. He contradicted himself, of course, when he argued against the idea that those districts are also especially vulnerable to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Which is it, Senator? No harm (from contagious illness), or catastrophic consequences (in enrollment)?

The three Senators were desperately grabbing at any pretext, no matter how absurd, to preserve the philosophical exemption — without coming right out and saying that they are anti-vaxxers themselves. Or worse, that they support vaccination and are merely placating the anti-vaxxers in their constituencies.

If they’d come irght out and argued against vaccination, at least they would have been intellectually consistent. The closest any of them came to such an argument was when Zuckerman asserted that “there is disputed evidence” on both sides of the issue. Which is the kind of thing we usually hear from the anti-climate change crowd: “There are arguments on both sides, and who am I to judge?”

These are people I usually admire and agree with. Today, I saw a completely different side to them — a desperate, evasive, rhetorically bankrupt side. It wasn’t pretty.

A festival of preconceived notions (UPDATED)

Update: The full Senate has approved H.98 as amended, to end the philosophical exemption. Details below.

Well, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee held a purely-for-show hearing this morning on whether to remove the philosophical exemption for vaccinations. The anti-vax crowd got an hour, and the pro-vax (I call it “science”) crowd got one.

No one’s mind was changed. And the schedule clearly indicated that “changing minds” wasn’t the purpose of the hearing: the committee held a very brief discussion immediately afterward, expressed its sentiment in favor of removing the philosophical exemption, and sent it to the Senate floor for action — immediately after lunchtime. Talk about your fast track: Committee chair Claire Ayer (good to see her back at work, BTW) had barely enough time to grab some lunch and formalize the committee’s findings for presentation to the Senate.

The committee didn’t take a formal vote because technically, all they were doing was reporting to the full Senate on a couple of key questions:

— What are the benefits and/or risks of immunization?
— How does the philosophical exemption affect the efficacy of vaccination?

Although there was no vote, each member stated their positions. Four were in favor of ending the philosophical exemption (Ayer, Jeanette White, Brian Collamore, Dick McCormack) and one was opposed (Anthony Pollina).

It’s widely believed that the full Senate will approve the measure on a pretty one-sided vote this afternoon. But the debate should be interesting, and the “No” votes may include an unusual coalition of the very liberal and very conservative.

The real action will come after today, when the House and Senate will have to resolve their differences. The original House bill did nothing to the philosophical exemption. Which chamber will carry the day? And how vociferous will the anti-vax lobbying effort be?

More on the Senate vote later.

UPDATE. The Senate has approved the amendment to H. 98 ending the philosophical exemption for child vaccinations. The vote on the amendment was 18 for, 11 against, and managed the neat trick of uniting some of the most liberal and conservative members of the body.

The issue now goes, presumably, to a House-Senate conference committee, since the original H.98 didn’t include the philosophical-exemption language.

More on all of this coming later. I think.