DENVER — After a bitter debate over vaccine legislation last session, Colorado lawmakers are once again tackling the issue with several new bills.
This week, lawmakers are planning on unveiling a bill aimed at tightening the rules on exemptions for students.
Vaccine Exemptions Bill
The bill is similar to the one that failed last legislative session after hours of debate from both supporters and opponents.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out what can we do to improve those immunization rates without necessarily taking away the exemptions, and what we keep coming back to is the process of how you get that exemption,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Adams County.
Rep. Mullica, who is the only nurse in the legislature, said Colorado is last in the country when it comes to certain vaccines and that the numbers are getting worse. The state also has fewer laws regulating vaccine exemptions.
“Colorado is one of the easiest places in the country to actually get that exemption,” Rep. Mullica said.
This time around, while the bills co-sponsors are the same, the bill has several changes.
Bill supporters say there will no longer be a requirement for parents to appear in person to file the exemption the first time. It also widens the range of professionals who can provide a medical exemption to all immunization providers. If parents don’t want to get an exemption signed by an immunization provider, they will be able to watch an online video about vaccinations before printing and filling out the exemption for themselves.
If it passes, the legislation tasks the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) with creating the online educational video and exemption section for parents.
A previously passed law (HB 14-1288) already directed CDPHE to create an online education tool for parents about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases.
“If the legislature passed a new law that required parents and guardians to view an online education module prior to claiming a non-medical exemption for their child, we would leverage both of these resources to create an inclusive, user-friendly module that meets all requirements set forth in the bill,” said Shannon Barbare, a Communications Specialist for the Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response at CDPHE, in a statement.
The bill would require the exemptions to be refiled by parents annually. Supporters said there is no requirement for parents to vaccinate their children and they don’t believe it puts an undue burden on families. The bill is already facing scrutiny, however.
“There’s a lot of passion behind this because people are affected by this, they’re affected on a very personal level. They know how to parent best and so any bill that’s going to ask the government to parent or to put one more hurdle in place to be that parent, I think there’s going be some pushback,” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Weld County.
Despite his hesitation with a similar bill last session, already Governor Jared Polis is indicating he is in favor of this bill.
“The Governor is encouraged by the conversations he has had with the bill sponsors and appreciates their hard work. The most recent draft of the bill honors the rights of parents while supporting the administration’s efforts to boost immunization rates and that is a bill that the Governor can support,” a statement from the Governor’s Office read.
Employee Vaccines Bill
Another bill introduced this legislative session is aimed prohibiting employers from requiring their workers to obtain vaccines.
Senate Bill 84, which was introduced by Rep. Saine and Republican Senator Vicki Marble – who represents Broomfield, Larimer and and Weld counties – bans employers from refusing to hire, discharging, refusing to promote or otherwise discriminating against employees who refuse to get vaccinated.
For Rep. Saine, the bill is about protecting the rights of employees to choose.
“There’s a lot of discrimination going on for certain employees, including in licensed healthcare facilities,” she said.
Rep. Saine said there is a small population of people who have had adverse reactions to certain vaccinations or who are allergic to some of the ingredients, while others don’t believe that the benefits of certain vaccines outweigh the risks.
That’s why she believes employees should be allowed to choose for themselves whether they want an immunization, even if they work in hospitals.
“It’s not if the people are refusing all vaccinations, it’s just certain vaccinations that they have adverse reactions to,” she said.
But Rep. Mullica disagrees with the premise of the bill, saying patients who are immune compromised could be exposed to dangerous diseases if medical staff are not properly vaccinated.
“To think that they wouldn’t have protections when they go in and treating these patients from spreading that disease to extremely vulnerable populations, that is a dis-service to our patients. That’s just not responsible. It’s an irresponsible thing to do,” Rep. Mullica said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican who represents El Paso County, has introduced a bill to add consumer protections for vaccinations. House Bill 1239 would require health care providers to provide more vaccine information to patients and prohibits facilities from recommending or administering a vaccine to a patient under 18 without the consent of their parent or guardian, among other things.
The bills still have a long way to go through committee hearings and debates at the state Capitol. The hearings could once again turn bitter with passionate parents testifying for and against each bill.
“I can’t deny that it has become a partisan issue, but it shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Rep. Mullica said.
Senate Bill 84 is up for a committee hearing on Feb. 10.