by Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin
Last session, lawmakers took up nearly 60 pandemic-related health measures, more than half focused on vaccines; most failed. It’s a vastly different situation this year.
Of four bills focused on vaccines or public health powers that the Bulletin is following, two have stalled. The other two land on opposite sides of the public health debate. One would limit the power of public health officials, and the other would send public health departments money for vaccinations.
House Bill 154, which passed the House this month, 192-180, largely along party lines, targets the powers of local health officers, whose work goes beyond addressing communicable diseases to include sanitation concerns in child care and school facilities and restaurants.
Under current law, select boards must provide notice of a public health officer’s proposed regulation and vote on it at a public board meeting. In most towns, those meetings are held every other week, and the majority of boards allow public comment during those meetings. But there is no requirement they do so.
The bill would make it significantly harder for municipalities to adopt new health ordinances. New measures could be approved only at the annual town meeting or at a special town meeting, which must be requested by residents through a petition process.
Wayne Whitford, president of the New Hampshire Health Officers Association, warned the House Municipal and County Government Committee earlier this year that the bill would prevent communities from addressing public health concerns quickly.
Sixty-one of the 67 people who contacted lawmakers ahead of the vote urged them to pass the bill. Some cited opposition to COVID-related public health measures, which were put in place by state, not local, officials.
“I do not believe that municipal authorities should be able to enact public policies on health without public engagement,” wrote Alice Scofield of Greenville. “Elected officials are still servants of their municipalities and not autocrats.”
Senate Bill 115 would give local public health departments $20,000 over two years to help pay for vaccines not covered by the federal immunization program. Senators heard from local health officers who said they’ve had to turn away some residents seeking a variety of vaccines who are insured under Medicare Part B and Part D or the Advantage Plan because of federal regulations.
The Senate tabled the bill last week, but it could still be added to the state budget.
Other vaccine efforts have stalled.
House Bill 539 would prevent schools from having vaccine clinics, for any vaccine, during school hours.
Schools require parental permission before giving a child a vaccine. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Kofalt, a Wilton Republican, raised concerns about two instances in New Hampshire where a child was vaccinated mistakenly without a parent’s permission.
Lawmakers heard from parents and school officials who said working parents and those with transportation challenges rely on schools for vaccines, and flu immunizations especially.
House members laid the bill on the table earlier this month in a 257-123 vote, meaning it cannot be voted on again without a two-thirds vote.
The Department of Health and Human Services would have lost its ability to mandate vaccines under House Bill 557, which was also sponsored by Kofalt. Only lawmakers would be allowed to add vaccines to the list.
Kofalt told the Bulletin in January that while the department has been “very restrained” in adding new vaccines, he’s concerned a future Health and Human Services commissioner would add every vaccine recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the COVID-19 vaccine.
“That ought to be something the Legislature decides and not the individual that runs the agency,” he said.
The bill failed last week, 194-185.
The department has not proposed adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandated vaccines.
Children are required to have several vaccines to attend private or public school or child care facilities: diphtheria, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, rubeola, tetanus, Hepatitis B, and chickenpox vaccines, as well as a vaccine that protects against meningitis, epiglottitis, and pneumonia.
The percentage of children who’ve received all required vaccinations has dropped in New Hampshire and nationally since the pandemic. That’s been largely attributed to the challenges families have had in getting annual health checkups, where vaccines are often given.
While lawmakers passed legislation last year making it easier for parents to get a religious exemption from the required vaccines, the department of Health and Human Services told the Bulletin in January the number of those requests has fallen.
This story was written by Annmarie Timmins, Senior Reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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