Brief

Democratic lawmakers introduce bills to expand vaccine access

By: - August 8, 2023 5:54 am
BOWIE, MARYLAND - MARCH 25: Nurses draw vaccine doses from a vial as Maryland residents receive their second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the Cameron Grove Community Center. The vaccinations were provided by Prince George's County's Mobile Units. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A package of bills introduced by Democratic lawmakers on Monday seeks to increase access to vaccinations and address decreasing vaccine rates in Wisconsin by narrowing exemptions, allowing teenagers to make their own decisions about vaccines and making Wisconsin a “universal vaccine purchasing state.”

Wisconsin started falling behind in its childhood vaccination rates during the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to catch back up. Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said in a statement that the state’s declining immunization rates are alarming. 

“We must act to protect against outbreaks of preventable and too often deadly illnesses,” Subeck said in a statement. “In recent years, we have seen the return of once unheard of outbreaks of measles and other communicable diseases. Expanding access to vaccines and ensuring that children receive their vaccinations is vital to preventing these unnecessary and totally avoidable outbreaks.”

One bill, co-authored by Subeck and Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), would allow minors 16 and older to make decisions about vaccination on their own. According to the co-sponsorship memo, teenagers could decide to receive some or all vaccinations that their parents previously withheld when given complete information and control over their preventive medical care.

The authors say that allowing a teenager the decision-making ability over their health care, specifically around vaccines, would likely increase vaccine rates for immunizations targeted at teenagers, like the HPV vaccine, as well as all other recommended vaccines as part of the vaccine schedule. 

Another bill by Subeck and Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) would limit Wisconsin’s vaccine exemptions by ending the state’s personal conviction exemption. Use of the exemptions in Wisconsin has increased substantially over the last several decades. 

According to a report from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the percentage of students with a waiver for one or more immunizations rose to 5.4% during the 2022-23 school year. During the 1997-98 school year, only 1.6% of students had a waiver. The same report said that while the percentage of students with religious and medical waivers have remained relatively constant, those with a personal conviction waiver has increased from 1.2% during the 1997-98 school year to 5.0% during 2022-23 school year.

Lawmakers argue in the co-sponsorship memo that the current broad exemptions — medical, religious and personal convictions reasons — make it too easy for people to opt out and put schools and communities at higher risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases. 

“Vaccines protect the health of our communities and our children and ultimately save lives,” Subeck said. “We must work proactively to increase vaccination rates in Wisconsin and protect against unnecessary outbreaks of preventable diseases.”

The bill would not change the current medical or religious exemptions. 

The last bill, co-authored by Subeck and Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), would make Wisconsin a universal vaccine purchasing state, meaning that the state would purchase all recommended vaccine doses and be reimbursed by Medicaid or private insurers, depending on who administers the vaccine. 

Currently, Wisconsin purchases vaccines that it will distribute to be used as part of the Vaccines for Children program through Medicaid, while private insurers and providers purchase all other vaccines. The authors of the bill say in their co-sponsorship memo that this method of purchasing is inefficient and can lead to higher prices for some vaccines and lower availability in certain areas. 

The bills are unlikely to advance in the Republican-led Legislature, which voted earlier this year against tightening chicken pox vaccine exemptions that wouldn’t have affected the current broad exemptions and mandating the meningitis vaccine, leaving Wisconsin an outlier in the Midwest.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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