Bill of the Week: House Bill 3063

An attempt to compel Oregonians to vaccinate their children morphed into perhaps the most emotional and polarizing debate of the 2019 legislative session. Then, on May 13, it blew up in a way nobody expected.

After a brutal process, the bill passed the Oregon House on May 1. As proponents and critics prepared to relitigate their differences in the Senate, Democrats agreed in a backroom deal May 13 to kill the bill—in exchange for Senate Republicans' agreement to return from a self-imposed exile and allow passage of a $2 billion tax measure to fund schools.

What would the bill have done? Removed parents' ability to decline to immunize their children for religious, philosophical or any other non-medical reasons. Oregon has a relatively high rate of vaccine exemptions, and the result would have been to bar a significant percentage of children from school and extracurricular activities.

When did vaccines become a political football? Two phenomena combined to heat up an issue that has long been on the back burner. A measles outbreak this spring in Southwest Washington sickened 71 people and dribbled into Oregon. Doctors and public health professionals encountered a confluence of the far left, which distrusts Big Pharma and corporate medicine, and the far right, which saw the bill stripping away personal freedoms. Those groups deluged lawmakers and were not going to stop ("Make America Measly Again," WW, March 20, 2019). Rep. Bill Post (R-Keizer), a leading opponent of the bill, called it "absolute government overreach" that united disparate forces. "Moms from all over Oregon, all walks of life and all parties were standing together in opposition," Post says. "Don't mess with Mama Bear is my takeaway."

Why did Dems trade it away? Although important, vaccinations were nowhere near the top of to-do lists for Gov. Kate Brown, legislative leadership or their public employee union supporters. It was also an issue that threatened to turn a small but vocal group of left-leaning critics into mortal enemies of Democrats.

Would the bill have passed the Senate? Although the bill passed the House 37-21, five Democrats voted no and at least two Democratic senators opposed it. One of them, Sen. Lee Beyer (D-Springfield), told Oregon Public Broadcasting he didn't think the votes were there. Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), a chief sponsor of the bill, disagrees. He thinks the votes were available in the Senate—but the courage wasn't. "The Senate is a hospice where good bills go to die," Greenlick says.

What's the impact on public health? That's unclear. Washington and California have passed similar bills, which could make Oregon an anti-vaxx haven—but Washington's law, signed last week, only applies to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Critics of the bill repeatedly noted that only 14 cases of measles were reported in the state in the past year. That's out of a population of 4.2 million, i.e., there's no emergency, say critics. Proponents cite national totals of measles cases on the increase and warn that Oregonians could lose the "herd immunity" that keeps epidemics at bay.

What happens now? Greenlick, a retired health researcher and former longtime chairman of the House Health Care Committee, was the biggest proponent of the bill. He is stepping down after the 2020 short session. Greenlick says he wasn't consulted about senators' capitulation on his bill and only learned about the deal Monday morning. He says he hasn't decided whether to try again next year or leave that task to future Legislatures. "I'm not very happy," Greenlick says. "This really is an important issue. And when you get blackmailed, you shouldn't fold."