MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Health Department has softened a rule affecting parents who want to skip vaccinations for their children, after some of those parents complained that asking them to sign a form talking about the risks and benefits of the shots amounted to unconstitutional "compelled speech," a health official told lawmakers Thursday.
Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said an earlier draft required parents seeking an exemption from vaccinations to sign a form acknowledging that they "understand that failure to complete the schedule (of shots) increases the risk to the person and others."
Parents now will only be required to say they have read the department’s educational materials on vaccines, Dolan told the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. They will have to sign a form each year that says: "I have reviewed and understand the Required Parent Education Information developed by the Vermont Department of Health."
Committee members voted to accept the department’s revised rules after the panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Marek, a Newfane Democrat and lawyer, said he believed the revisions described by Dolan addressed the constitutional concerns.
The joint committee, made up of House and Senate members, reviews executive agency rules to be sure they comply with the intent of laws passed by the Legislature. If the committee objects to a rule, the executive agency can implement it anyway, but the committee objection would give anyone suing the state over the rule a stronger leg to stand on in court.
The committee meeting was the latest forum for the debate that raged much of last winter and spring after the Health Department sought to end Vermont’s "philosophical exemption," essentially a right of refusal for parents who want to enroll their children in school or child care without the roughly 20 immunizations a child is supposed to get before entering kindergarten. A smaller number of shots are scheduled later.
After intense debate, lawmakers kept the exemption, but sought to tighten the rules for parents exercising it.
Thursday, members of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice said the earlier form forced them to agree with the Health Department’s assessments of vaccine risks and benefits.
Vaccine Choice leader Jennifer Stella distributed to committee members a copy of a letter from Kristen Williams, the mother of a student at the Randolph Elementary School. The letter said her initial reaction on seeing the Health Department form was "This can’t be legal!"
"I was shocked to find the sloppy and offensive language in the exemption form, as well as the laughable educational materials that give no insight into the risks of vaccine use, which are real, and have been documented in many places," Williams wrote.
Stella said after the committee hearing that she was pleased the Health Department agreed to soften the language on its form. "It’s good they’re responding to public concerns," she said.