After extensive efforts from public health and the immunization coalition to revise Maine vaccine exemptions, and in the face of determined opposition, on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, the Maine Senate voted for a bill removing religious and personal belief exemptions to school vaccination requirements. The bill will now go to the Governor’s office, and Governor Janet Mills – whose administration already expressed support for the bill – is expected to sign it.
The bill, LD 798, has been in the works for a while, over strong opposition from the resident anti-vaccine groups. It simply removes the language creating the non-medical exemptions, such as for religion and personal beliefs.
On the support side, the grassroots group Maine Families for Vaccines spoke in favor of the bill, and medical associations, including the Maine American Academy of Pediatricians, worked to explain it and support it. A previous bill, similar in language, passed through the Maine Legislature, but it was subsequently vetoed by the (then) governor.
The new Maine vaccine exemptions bill went through the legislative process with some drama. After passing through the House, the Senate approved the bill, but – in an 18:17 vote – added back a religious exemption.
On returning the bill to the house, the House reaffirmed their commitment to the removal of both the personal belief and the religious exemptions – in procedural terms, it “insisted”, and sent the original bill back to the Senate to vote on it again. After negotiations, one of the Senators who supported adding the religious exemption back in reversed course, and the original bill – removing both the personal belief and the religious exemption – passed 18 to 17.
As mentioned above, the Governor is expected to sign it.
The price of the change appears to be somewhat weakening the controls on religious exemptions by preventing the Department of Health and Human Services from regulating them and allowing a nurse practitioner or physician assistant to grant them.
In addition, children with an individualized educational plan can continue to attend, as long as the parents – or the student, if over 18 – have consulted with a licensed physician about “the risks and benefits associated with the choice to immunize.”
Maine – whose exemption rate was high, and who has seen a large outbreak of pertussis in past years – thus joins California, West Virginia and Mississippi as states with no non-medical exemptions. It also provides the second legislative win for public health this season, after Washington passed a bill removing the personal belief exemption to the MMR vaccine.
Congratulations, Maine, and let us hope this step helps keep your children safe and serves as a model to more states.