Pa. doctors could be punished for rejecting vaccine-skeptical parents under advancing House legislation

By: - May 5, 2021 1:10 pm

(Getty Images via The Beacon)

(*This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. with comment from the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania)

Doctors could be punished for refusing to see children whose parents reject the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccinations standards under a bill passed by a Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House panel Wednesday morning.

In a party line 15-10 vote, the House Health Committee approved the proposal, titled the “Immunization Freedom Act”, sponsored by Rep. David Zimmerman, R-Lancaster.

The bill would require doctors to continue to provide care to children as long as their parents consent to one vaccine a year. Such a rate would quickly fall behind CDC guidance, which suggests babies are inoculated against seven diseases, some requiring multiple booster shots, in their first 15 months alone.

Doctors who violate the law would be subject to “administrative penalties imposed before the health care practitioner’s Commonwealth licensing agency or board for unprofessional conduct,” according to the bill.

Zimmerman said the proposal came in response to concerns from more than a dozen families who’ve contacted his office, and said they have been “kicked out” of a doctors office for refusing vaccines. 

“The idea is, we have doctors now, who are really not working with families,” Zimmerman told the Capital-Star. “And hopefully this bill would help those relationships.”

The committee’s Republicans similarly argued in favor of the proposal, citing personal experience and skepticism of vaccines.

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, said she worked with her doctor to push back the vaccination schedule for her premature child out of concern for the baby’s health.

Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, added that “children are all different.”

“I’m not going to lock my daughter into immunization and adverse reactions to them,” Keefer said. 

The federal government does have a program to compensate individuals who suffer serious side effects. According to 2018 data from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the odds of receiving such a payment are about one in a million.

How broad the problem Zimmerman hopes to address is unclear. A GOP committee staffer cited “significant concerns within certain networks” when questioned by a Republican lawmaker, but did not name any specific health systems.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, an industry group for hospitals, said it opposed the bill, but deferred questions about policies with unvaccinated patients to individual hospitals.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society and UPMC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to a 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics study, nearly nine in 10 pediatricians have reported at least one parent who refused to have their child vaccinated. 

The study, which used data from 2006 until 2013, found the number of parents concerned that vaccines are dangerous fell. But the number of parents who believe vaccines are unnecessary rose.

Pediatricians were only able to convince about one-third of skeptical parents to change their minds with education. 

The study also reported that the number of surveyed doctors who “always” turn away patients for refusing a vaccine nearly doubled, from 6.1 percent to 11.7 percent, though the academy encourages doctors to care for all patients regardless of vaccination status.

“Our data helps explain the growing degree of frustration among many pediatricians when they are unable to guide families to embrace life-saving vaccines,” the study said.

The bill does not appear to impact COVID-19 vaccination efforts. The CDC vaccine schedule for children currently covers such diseases as polio, tetanus and measles, but federal authorities are still reviewing the safety of current COVID vaccines for those under 18.

But the vote comes about 13 months into the pandemic, as issues of public health have become subject to political debate.

Republicans in Harrisburg have often flouted masking requirements, as five did during Wednesday’s hearing on Zimmerman’s bill, and pushed back on “vaccine passports,” or individual credentials that show someone has been vaccinated to be admitted to a given activity. 

Some Republicans have even publicly stated they will not get the COVID-19 vaccine at all.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced he would lift all state-level occupancy restrictions, in place to varying degrees since March 2020 to try and contain the spread of the virus. The only restriction that will remain is a masking order, which will stand until 70 percent of the state’s population is vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, just over half of all adult Pennsylvanians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Wolf has previously said he does not plan to require a COVID-19 vaccines for schooling. Either way, Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that allows for parents to not vaccinate their children for religious or personal reasons. 

Still, Democrats, such as state Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna, a registered nurse, said the CDC’s vaccine schedule exists for a reason, and is backed up by years of research.

“Immunization works best when they are done on schedule, and it’s for the health and safety of children,” Kosierowski said.

As for rejecting patients, physicians “have to keep in mind the safety of his other patients,” she added.

Zimmerman modified his proposal in committee, stripping language that would penalize doctors who reject adult patients who ignore vaccination standards. He also added language that prevents insurers from paying a bonus to health care providers for vaccinating children on the CDC’s schedule.

Proposals such as Zimmerman’s have pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost two years ago to the date, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, advocated for an even broader proposal to aid parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.