Capitol Alert

Proposed California vaccine law has Gavin Newsom’s support, again

Gov. Gavin Newsom has agreed to sign a vaccine oversight bill after striking a last-minute deal to clarify what medical exemptions for the shots will remain valid and which doctors can issue the passes.

State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, negotiated with Newsom’s office this week after the governor surprised lawmakers by walking back his support of the controversial measure on Tuesday.

The companion bill carrying Newsom’s desired amendments would protect current medical exemptions in certain cases and would prevent doctors under investigation from issuing additional passes.

“These amendments clarify legal and administrative processes in SB 276 in order to ensure medical providers, parents, school administrators and public health officials know the rules of the road once it takes effect,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said in a statement. “The governor will sign SB 276 once the companion legislation has passed both houses.”

Newsom agreed to sign the legislation in June, but unexpectedly reversed course after the Assembly voted the measure off its floor earlier this week.

Newsom would “only put his signature on a bill that reflects his values,” the governor’s chief strategist Daniel Zingale told reporters on Wednesday following a Senate concurrence vote.

The bill would allow the California Department of Public Health to develop a standard medical exemption form that doctors must use, which would go in a statewide database once completed.

Public health officials would have authority to review doctors’ exemptions if they’ve issued more than five in a year, and schools that fall below a 95 percent immunization rate would also be red flagged.

Friday’s tacked-on provisions, however, allow kids with medical exemptions to continue skipping vaccines until their next immunization requirement, unless they were administered by a doctor disciplined by medical boards. For example, kindergartners with medical exemptions would not have to renew their slip until 7th grade.

Pan also conceded to Newsom’s demand that doctors would not be held liable under penalty of perjury, and review of physicians issuing five or more exemptions would apply only to those administered beginning in 2020.

But the new bill clarifies that doctors penalized by medical boards for immunization-related concerns would not be able to issue any more exemptions until the probation is lifted.

Organizations that opposed Pan’s bill were not satisfied with the amendments.

“We don’t think it really makes a difference,” said Debra Schaefer, spokeswoman for Advocates for Physicians’ Rights, a group that opposes the bill. “We don’t feel better about the amendments. They don’t fix anything. You’re talking about grandfathering, and that doesn’t fix it for the rest of the kids. Maybe the penalty of perjury helps, but doctors don’t want to be under a microscope.”

The bill would further California’s crackdown of who gets to skip vaccines. Pan also wrote a law in 2015 that eliminated personal beliefs from a list of qualifying reasons to not vaccinate kids enrolling in school.

Pan says SB 276 would close a “loophole” families and doctors found in the allowance of medical exemptions. Pan has said in committee hearings that “unscrupulous physicians” selling exemptions are to blame for a surge in the passes across California, which has led to a dip in school vaccination rates.

Leah Russin, founder of SB 276 sponsor Vaccinate California, said the agreement marks a “victory for science over fear and for sound public health policy over conspiracy and misinformation.”

“I’m glad that we have certainty,” Russin said. “Parents of immunocompromised children have now come to the Legislature twice for protections for their children. After five years of fighting for this, we have finally secured legislation that eliminates non-legitimate medical exemptions, and eliminates fraud. This should make California much more resilient to outbreaks of preventable disease.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee