Capitol Alert

Amended California vaccine bill clears major hurdle on its way to Gavin Newsom

A bill to restrict vaccine medical exemptions and increase oversight of the doctors who issue them to California school children is one step closer to becoming law.

Senate Bill 276, which passed a major legislative hurdle on Thursday, would require exemptions to meet federal guidelines and would task state officials and appointed physicians with monitoring them.

After facing bipartisan scrutiny in a nearly six-hour hearing, the bill passed through the Assembly Health Committee on a 9-2 vote, with four members abstaining.

It now heads to Assembly Appropriations, chaired by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, a co-author of the bill. If signed into law, the proposal carries a $50.5 million total price tag for the next five years.

State Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who authored the bill, said SB 276 is necessary to crack down on “unscrupulous” doctors that are issuing “fraudulent” medical exemptions and would strengthen a 2015 law he also wrote that eliminated personal beliefs from a list of reasons to skip vaccinations.

“(The bill) maintains and restores the integrity of the medical exemptions system,” Pan said. “This bill protects the rights of these children to attend school and ensures Californians have the freedom to go about their community without being at risk of becoming infected with serious, preventable diseases.”

Most California students are immunized, but there are low vaccination clusters across the state, with more than 100 schools in California reporting exemption rates of 10 percent or higher, according to Pan.

“These schools represent the tinder of a disease wildfire,” Pan said.

Jenni Balck, a Ladera Ranch mother testifying in support of the measure during the hearing, said her 10-year-old daughter received a heart transplant as a toddler and now relies on “everyone around her being immunized to keep her well protected.”

“Kids in public school who have actual medical exemptions, them and their families have been through the depths of hell,” Balck said. “Being in public education shows they’ve made it through to the other side. They have the right to education in a safe environment without the threat of preventable disease sending them back to the hospital, or worse.”

Pan changed elements of the measure earlier this week to earn the approval of skeptical lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had voiced concerns that government bureaucrats would infringe on families’ medical decisions.

After Pan reduced some of the state’s power authorized in an earlier version, Newsom said he’d sign the bill in its current form.

“The amendments reflect not only my concerns but also a number of key representatives whose job it is to carry out the law,” Newsom said. “This will make it workable and addressed some of my bureaucratic anxieties.”

Pan’s amendments to expand guidelines and loosen government control failed to curry favor with opponents. Hundreds of Californians lined up to speak against the bill on Thursday. Following the committee hearing, a large group protested outside the governor’s office, chanting “We will not comply,” and singing patriotic songs.

Pan’s office said the senator’s received death threats, and some individuals showed up against the bill wearing shirts with printed blood splattered across his picture. During public testimony, one person called the measure “murderous,” another referenced the Nuremberg trials that imprisoned Nazis after World War II and a third equated Pan’s effort with “communist dictatorship.”

The Advocates for Physicians’ Rights said SB 276 still places doctors “under the microscope of the state government.”

“The bill’s authors just put a huge target on doctors’ backs, which is worse than a ‘chilling effect’, but a ‘killing effect’ of legitimate medical exemptions in this state,” said Leigh Dundas, the organization’s legal consultant.

But Pan’s amendments convinced hesitant Democrats, including Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda, who said he worked with Pan to get the bill in a passable position.

“You and I have talked about family history. You’ve taken amendments. They’re in print,” Bonta said. “I believe that you are putting forward and promoting good, science-based policy.”

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.