By Alex Seitz-Wald
The Senate voted Thursday to scrap the government requirement for parents to vaccinate their children at age 2, taking another step toward rolling back Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy.
The vote, 62-35, is largely symbolic as it requires a two-thirds majority to advance the measure, and it comes as lawmakers pursue sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation’s entire healthcare system. But the bill’s sponsors hope the vote will show parents, especially parents with young children, that the government is on their side.
“This is a clear message to the American people that we are listening to what they are saying and trying to deal with it in the most reasonable way possible,” Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, one of the bill’s cosponsors, said after the vote.
The vote was largely along party lines, with Republicans strongly supporting the bill and Democrats mostly opposing it.
Democrats say the bill is about rolling back safety rules put in place after a wave of measles outbreaks in several U.S. states in the 1990s. Back then, many of the cases were linked to low vaccination rates among parents and doctors opting not to vaccinate their children.
“Over the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of people have become sick and almost killed, and that because we only enforced an obligation on one family,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
The bi-partisan bill, which is sponsored by Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, would shift the responsibility for enforcing the childhood vaccine requirement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to state governments.
It has garnered broad support among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who say the CDC would be better equipped to enforce the rule.
“The federal government, the CDC, is not able to answer this bill’s questions,” Murray said. “When parents call the state health department asking for an update on the data, they are getting busy signals.”
Fischer, a pediatrician, said she had gotten emails from parents in Nebraska who were concerned about the bill. She said they told her that they were “under the impression that vaccines were a dangerous thing and you shouldn’t get them. This bill actually changes that.”
The CDC has pointed out that 99% of children under the age of 2 are already fully vaccinated.
There is no plan to repeal the government mandate entirely, though some Republican health policy experts say they hope to do so by 2022.
“I don’t think we want to repeal it completely,” said Bob Renda, the former chief of staff at the CDC and who now works at MDPower, a health policy research organization. “We can take it up again in a slightly different form because state legislatures have decided to rewrite their own laws.”
Lawmakers want to repeal a 1995 government rule that required all children in federally-funded childcare programs to be vaccinated by age 2 or be removed from the program. The rule was part of an effort to meet new national standards and help contain outbreaks.
Republicans had supported the rule back then, but have moved against it as some of the nation’s childhood vaccination rates have fallen, with several states allowing parents to opt out of vaccinations due to philosophical objections or religious beliefs.
Just last year, Maryland became the third state to roll back its childhood vaccination law, joining Indiana and West Virginia.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says that this new wave of state measures to allow parents to opt out of vaccines is drawing attention from other states. “Unhappy parents” who see a state implementing opt-out measures “are looking to their own state to move forward,” said Mike Meno, the chief of state affairs at the NCSL.
Senate Republicans say they’re considering ways to overhaul the vaccine requirement that would include revising the 1996 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which provides a legal basis for the federal government to require vaccination.