Utah lawmakers let parents opt out of vaccinating their kids without having to acknowledge health risks

(Al Hartmann | Tribune photo file) Alexis Herrera, 11, gets an immunization shot for school at the Junior League CARE Fair in the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City Friday July 15, 2016. At the request of Utah lawmakers, the state Department of Health said on Monday it will alter the wording on personal-exemption forms for parents opting out of vaccinating their kids, to free them from having to acknowledge the health risks.

Some Utah parents who choose to not vaccinate their children believe state health officials are overstepping their authority by requiring them to agree there are risks associated with their choice.

State lawmakers moved Monday to ease some of those concerns.

Legislators took up the claim while evaluating the Utah Department of Health’s current rules on immunization exemptions for personal and religious reasons.

Joseph Miner, the department’s executive director of UDOH, told members of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee that a typographical error in handbooks distributed to Utah schools had led some interested parents to seek religious exemptions to vaccinations through their local health department rather than their school, per state law.

Though the error was corrected online, the issue prompted legislators to debate the relative ease of gaining vaccination exemptions on religious grounds, which some found problematic. Parents need only send a letter to the school stating they are a member of a religion whose teachings don’t align with immunizations — with no further proof required.

“It just really negates the work we have done to get parents education about the risk they are putting their children in and the risk to other children,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City.

Miner said relatively few religious exemptions for vaccinations are filed in Utah each year. There were eight among 50,000 Utah kindergarten students enrolled in the 2015-2016 school year, according to Health Department data, and only 22 religious exemptions out of the nearly 53,000 seventh graders that same year.

Far more exemptions— roughly 95 percent, according to the data — are personal in nature as opposed to religious. Overall, about 4.6 percent of Utah kindergarteners were exempted from immunizations during the 2015-2016 school year and 5.6 percent of 7th graders — for a total of roughly 5,200 kids.

The Health Department’s current personal-exemption forms require signing parents to acknowledge they are responsible for risks associated with not vaccinating their child. Created in August 2016, the forms are obtained by parents or guardians at local health departments and must be signed in the presence of a health officer.

According to one Republican legislator, the form’s wording has some parents worried their signature could be construed as an admission of guilt.

“Why can’t it just say ‘I understand the information I’ve been provided’? ” said Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove. “Why can’t we just make an acknowledgement rather than something that could be an admission against interest?”

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, countered that lawmakers shouldn’t give parents the right to avoid consequences of their actions. He likened the form’s acknowledgement clause to warning labels on cigarettes.

“The scientific evidence is right there, clear and absolute,” Dabakis told colleagues.

But members of the Administrative Rules Committee ultimately decided to change the phrase to make a parent’s signature an acknowledgement of the information rather than an assumption of risk.

Rich Lakin, the Health Department’s immunization program manager, said that clause on the form would either be reworded or removed entirely.