Medical professionals would need to provide detailed information to patients, parents or other caregivers before administering vaccines and allow them to opt out, with some warnings. And New Jersey taxpayers would be on the hook for certain damages if the immunization results in an injury.
Those are key elements to bills introduced Tuesday by Republican state Sens. Joe Pennacchio (Morris) and Michael Testa (Cape May). They claim the measures will help parents make more informed decisions and give them new legal options if something goes wrong. They have also pledged to introduce a resolution calling on the federal government to scrap a 1986 law they believe unfairly protects vaccine manufacturers.
The proposals are the latest weapons in an ongoing war over vaccine requirements in the Garden State, which drew many hundreds of protesters to the State House in Trenton in December and January. The opposition helped derail bills supported by a wide range of doctors, school officials and public-health advocates that sought to end or roll back religious exemptions to the state’s current immunization requirements.
Won’t be posted to health committee
But the GOP proposals aren’t likely to get a hearing anytime soon, given that Democrats hold the majority in both the Senate and the Assembly and control the flow of bills. Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) — who has sponsored multiple measures to expand vaccine protections — said he would not post the Pennacchio/Testa legislation for a hearing in the health committee that he chairs.
“Most legislation is designed to be constructive — and not to create unfounded fear and division. Then there are these bills,” Vitale said, noting that, as drafted, the proposals are more likely to confuse and mislead parents.
Vitale and other Democratic lawmakers — led by Senate President Steve Sweeney (Gloucester) — have pledged to try again with their own proposals, reintroducing several bills designed to expand vaccine use in the new legislative session, which began mid-January. Use of religious exemptions here grew by nearly 50% over the past five years, and public health officials worry this trend is enabling once-rare infectious diseases to gain traction. There have been several measles outbreaks in recent years, concentrated primarily in Orthodox Jewish communities in New Jersey and New York.
Sweeney’s new bill (S-902) — which mirrors the one pulled from the Senate agenda in January — would tighten medical exemptions and end the use of religious reasons to opt out of the state’s immunization requirements for public school students. It would, however, permit private schools to adopt policies that allow children to skip the shots for religious reasons.
A second proposal (S-903) by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) echoes earlier versions of the legislation and would tighten the rules around religious exemptions to require parents to explain and provide documentation on how immunization violates their specific beliefs.
Trying to round up votes
Sweeney said last week he is still working to secure enough votes for the controversial Democratic measures, which have yet to be posted for a hearing or vote in the new session. But he remained confident. “We’re close. We’ll get there,” he told reporters.
There is vast scientific evidence that immunizations are safe and effective, but adverse effects do occur in rare instances. Under current New Jersey law, children must receive more than a half-dozen inoculations to attend child care programs and preschool, and nearly twice that number to enter grade school — unless parents present specific medical or religious reasons against vaccination.
But advocates for parental choice, including some who oppose immunizations outright, question the need for so many shots, especially for young children. They also raise concerns about mandates that add or expand the state’s requirements. And they believe efforts to roll back religious exemptions infringe on their parental rights and force them to make an impossible choice between their beliefs and their children’s education.
“We need to have more of an open dialog about these (medical) interventions,” said Sarah Lane, a pediatric optometrist involved with the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccine Choice. While she said it is not a partisan issue, Lane opposed the bills to curb religious exemptions and favors the measures introduced this week by Pennacchio and Testa.
One measure (S-1734) requires health care providers to share with patients or their parents certain materials at least 48 hours before administering any immunization, including a copy of the vaccine packaging insert, details on ingredients and information on reporting medical problems that may result. The patient or their guardian would then need to sign these papers before the doctor could vaccinate.
The bill also calls for the clinician to offer the patient or parent a chance to refuse the shot, along with an explanation of how that choice could leave the individual at risk for contracting an infectious disease — and potentially ineligible for daycare or school, given the state’s vaccine requirements. In addition, it bans doctors from refusing to care for those who decline vaccination.
“Parents need to be given an opportunity to make a decision,” Lane said. “The way things are now, parents are not given an active opportunity” to weigh in on the immunization schedule.
Advance warning for parents
Pennacchio, a dentist, said he is not opposed to vaccines in general, but parents deserve advanced warning of these shots and a chance to make a “well-informed” choices. The process does not need to be complicated, he said, and the doctor could share information in advance by email, reducing the need for multiple visits.
“A parent has a right to know what is being injected into their child’s body and that it has been properly tested,” he said. “And we can make it really simple. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
“Ultimately, we want to empower parents with information to make the vaccination choices that are right for their families,” Testa added.
The second bill (S-1791) would change the state’s Tort Claims Act, which protects public agencies and workers from liability, to hold these groups accountable if someone was injured by a vaccine mandated by the state. Both public workers and those licensed by the state — like doctors and nurses — could be held responsible for immunization damages under the measure, although the amount would be reduced if the victim also received funding from other sources.
Lane said this concept is “so necessary” to change the conversation around vaccine mandates and ensure the state is proceeding with caution before requiring residents to get additional shots. Transferring liability for vaccine injuries to the state, “That’s a big deal,” she said.
In addition, Pennacchio and Testa plan to introduce soon a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to repeal a 1986 law that shields vaccine makers from liability. This also led to the creation of the vaccine-injury compensation fund, which has paid out more than $3.4 billion in the past three decades to help close to 5,000 people deal with complications related to certain immunizations
Pennacchio acknowledged that Democratic control of the state Legislature means his bills face an uphill battle, but he said parents and policymakers should have a discussion that’s based on science. “The most important aspect for me in this whole series of vaccine bills is to keep the conversation going,” he said.