CHARLESTON - A bill that would take the authority to grant medical exemptions for school-required vaccinations out of the hands of county health officers and put it back into the hands of the physicians who treat the children is being held up by one elected official: Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the Health and Human Resources Committee.
Perdue met Thursday in Charleston with bill sponsor Delegate Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio, and others to discuss the future of the bill.
"We've met several times and had other parties join in the meeting, but basically we come to the same impasse every time," Ferns said.
At issue is the granting of medical exemptions for vaccinations that are required by state law for children to attend public or private school. Medical exemptions are given when a determination is made that a vaccine or components of the vaccine would harm the child.
"I feel the physician who is seeing and treating the child is the most qualified to grant a medical exemption," Ferns said.
Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with nine other delegates from around the state and both sides of the aisle. Of the 11 sponsors, seven sit on the Health and Human Resources Committee.
"I think it would be difficult to second-guess the child's physician when the physician is the one who has interaction with the child," Storch said.
The proposal also removes language stating that a parent who does not have his or her child vaccinated according to state requirements is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Perdue said in an email response to questions Friday that those opposed to the bill include state public health officials and various nurses' and physicians' associations and that, after meeting with people representing both sides of the issue, a consensus still had not been reached. He said those opposed "feel in the interests of the larger public health that such exemptions only be granted if state public health officials concur."
Ferns said 19 of the 24 committee members have personally voiced support for the bill to him. Only one other state, Massachusetts, requires a government health officer's approval for medical exemptions.
Ferns said his bill would not even be necessary if the Department of Health and Human Resources hadn't enacted an "interpretive rule" in 2008 that took the power away from physicians. West Virginia Code states that, to enter school, a child must produce "a certificate from a reputable physician showing that an immunization ... has been done or is impossible or improper or other sufficient reason why such immunizations have not been done."
Interpretive rule can be invoked by state agencies who have been approved by the Legislature to make such rules. In this case, the DHHR enacted a rule that states that a physician has to submit a medical exemption request to the county health officer, who will review and approve or deny it.
"All our bill is doing is basically restating what's already coded, reinstating the authority to grant medical exemptions to physicians," Ferns said.
He said the DHHR previously tried to pass legislation similar to the interpretive rule, but that bill failed. A lawsuit filed in the state Supreme Court to determine whether the DHHR is "overstepping its bounds" and bypassing the legislative process by using interpretive rule has been filed by We the Parents, a West Virginia grassroots vaccine reform group. The group's attorney is Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, who also is a member of the Health and Human Resources Committee.
Perdue said the pending litigation is another reason he has not placed the bill on the agenda. The results of the case "may have effect upon or be affected by the proffered legislation," he said.
Ferns said for the bill to be heard in the House this session, it would have to clear both the Health and Human Resources and Judiciary committees by March 31. House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, is a co-sponsor.
"It's do or die next week," said We the Parents co-founder Claudia Raymer of Moundsville, who added she suggested another compromise for Ferns to present to Perdue that gives the county school districts and state health department some oversight.
"It has to be placed on the agenda or we're going to have another entire school year of children being kept out of school because of being denied medical exemptions," Raymer said.