California

Vaccine bill is on Gavin Newsom’s desk, but his office wants changes that reflect ‘his values’

Despite clearing the Legislature on Wednesday, a bill to restrict vaccine medical exemptions for California schoolchildren faces one last hurdle: winning the support of a governor who has publicly wavered on the proposal.

Although he said in June he would sign Senate Bill 276, Newsom has since reversed course and one of his top advisers now says his signature on the measure isn’t guaranteed.

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

Zingale spoke shortly after the Senate passed the measure 28-11, sending it to Newsom’s desk. That passage followed months of testy hearings where protesters chanted loudly and attempted to disrupt proceedings. Lawmakers also negotiated with Newsom’s office and took amendments to the bill to win his support after he voiced concern that it would give government officials too much power over medical exemptions.

Now his office says he wants more changes through separate, not yet public legislation. SB 276 currently requires doctors to certify under penalty of perjury that their medical exemptions are accurate. It also mandates scrutiny of doctors who have issued more than five exemptions, including exemptions made before the bill takes effect.

The changes Newsom wants would eliminate the penalty of perjury for doctors and retroactive counting of a doctor’s medical exemptions.

Newsom’s office says the governor wants to clarify that the medical exemption forms will not be releasable under public records laws and that doctors can present additional evidence to a review panel should their decision be questioned. He also wants to clarify that the Department of Public Health will begin a reviews of schools and doctors starting in 2020.

There are nearly five weeks left for Newsom to sign legislation, but it’s unclear whether he’ll approve SB 276 if lawmakers reject his requests.

Newsom’s demands left the bill’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan, surprised. The Sacramento Democrat said there will not be further amendments to the bill, although he did not rule out changes in future legislation.

“I’m certainly open to working with the governor’s office,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “But this is the bill that the governor’s office agreed to and committed to sign.”

Pan says SB 276 closes a “loophole” families and doctors found in the medical exemption process. It builds on a 2015 law Pan also wrote to eliminate personal beliefs as a valid reason to skip vaccines when enrolling kids in school.

Pan said there are “unscrupulous physicians” who sell the exemptions to families of schoolchildren who should get vaccinated, which compromises the health and safety of their classmates who cannot get the shots for medical reasons.

“The purpose of the bill is to keep people safe,” Pan said. “You don’t have the right, you don’t have the privilege of injuring someone else’s child. That’s what this bill is about.”

SB 276 would task the California Department of Public Health to develop a standard medical exemption form. Clinically trained staff would then review immunization rates at schools across the state to identify potentially fraudulent passes.

They would have the authority to deny or revoke the exemptions deemed invalid, though doctors can appeal the decision to a review panel comprised of physicians.

Newsom’s demand for last-minute changes also reflects divisions in the Legislature, where lawmakers have debated the bill’s details for hours during lengthy committee hearings and floor debates.

They’ve questioned whether the proposal would interfere with doctor-patient relationships and whether it gives enough leeway to doctors to exempt children who could have an adverse reaction to a shot.

Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, said during Tuesday’s Assembly floor vote that SB 276 is “going to have a chilling impact on legitimate medical exemptions That’ll lead to bad public policy that may result in children being injured.”

Republican lawmakers argued on Wednesday that the legislation interferes with parental decisions and accused the Legislature of government overreach.

“This is about personal freedoms and the right of the parent to make the best choice for their children,” said Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. ”This bill goes too far. You’re telling everybody how to live their lives.”

After the Senate approved the measure, dozens of protesters shut down the floor session with their chanting before heading to the governor’s office.

“You have not represented California for all,” they yelled, with several holding upside down American flags.

Karen Kain was among a small group of dozens standing outside Newsom’s office after the floor vote who had the chance to privately meet with the governor’s staff, including Zingale.

Kain said she shared how her daughter died after what she described as complications from the whooping cough vaccine. She said that though Newsom’s team listened to her story, she didn’t think the governor would veto the bill.

“I don’t know that I’m confident about anything,” she said.

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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.
Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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