Privacy Risks of New Vaccination Bill

With crucial votes due soon on a bill to make it more difficult for parents to get vaccine exemptions for their children, opponents are emphasizing a different criticism of the measure. Instead of continuing to focus on vaccine safety, they say one of its provisions is an ominous and unreasonable invasion of privacy.

Most of the attention paid to Senate Bill 276, by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, has dealt with its broad parameters. It would require the state Department of Public Health to review all vaccine exemptions at individual schools if fewer than 95 percent of students are immunized. That’s the minimum percentage that public health officials say is necessary for “herd immunity” from infectious diseases. The department would also investigate doctors who issue five or more exemptions in a year.

But Pan’s bill also requires parents seeking exemptions to provide their children’s medical records if public health officials choose to investigate whether exemptions were properly provided. A recent San Francisco Chronicle story noted how much this galled some parents.

“Who’s to say they won’t use that information for something else in the future?” Allison Serrao, an Orange County mother of three, told the newspaper. “It’s really scary to me as a parent. It crosses a lot of lines.”

‘Loophole’ blamed for shielding doctors

Supporters of the bill note that the state already deals with confidential medical records – such as by tracking sexually transmitted diseases – without problems. Some see the privacy complaints as an attempt to preserve what they consider a “loophole” that has let doctors who issued dubious exemptions off the hook.

That’s because under the 2014 law, also introduced by Pan, that ended “personal belief” exemptions – approved after a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland – parents can impede investigations. They can refuse to answer questions from investigators and decline to allow release of their children’s medical records.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported on the phenomenon of scores of doctors being accused of authorizing invalid medical exemptions but almost never being punished.

As California Healthline reported last month, the state can sue for access to doctors’ medical records. This year, the state Department of Consumer Affairs – which oversees the California Medical Board – has sued to obtain records from two physicians in the Santa Rosa area and two in Sacramento.

Only one of nearly 200 complaints upheld

But such actions are relatively rare. As of early August, only one state physician out of the nearly 200 accused of wrongly writing exemptions over the last four years has faced sanctions, according to the Chronicle. And the only reason that officials were able to build a case against Dana Point pediatrician Bob Sears was because one of the parents of a child he gave an exemption to objected to the decision and provided investigators with medical records. That led to Sears being put on probation by the Medical Board in 2008.

Pan’s bill was approved 24-10 by the state Senate on May 22. In the Assembly, the bill was weakened after Gov. Gavin Newsom questioned whether it would set up an unwieldy bureaucracy. The modified version of SB276 passed the Assembly Health Committee 9-2 on June 20.

To become law, the modified bill must pass both the full Assembly and the Senate by Sept. 13, when the current legislative session ends. 

The vaccine fight is playing out as U.S. public health authorities struggle with measles outbreaks in New York and Washington states. The problem is even more severe in nations as varied as Italy, Israel and the Philippines. Worldwide, there has been a 300percent increase in measles cases since last year.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com