Senate panel seeks to protect religious vaccine exemptions

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A bill requiring pharmacists fill prescriptions for ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 was expanded to ensure that religious exemptions are available for vaccine mandates at schools and child care centers.

The Senate Health committee broadened a bill related to off-label prescriptions for treating COVID to include a measure that prevents school and day care administrators from inquiring about the faith of children for whom a vaccine exemption was sought.

The bill is pushed by Republican state Sen. Mark Steffen, an advocate of using ivermectin who has said he is being investigated by the state Board of Healing Arts.

One critic said the proposal effectively redefines religious exemption in a way that it would open the door to anyone who might want to avoid a vaccination mandate.

The vaccine proposal is reflected in a bill passed during a special session last year that allowed a general religious exemption from vaccine mandates while barring employers from investigating claims about an employee’s faith.

Like those bills, an automatic religious exemption would be granted for schools as well as child care facilities and applies to all immunizations, not just one for preventing COVID-19.

“This is a very dangerous bill,” said Democratic state Sen. Cindy Holscher of Overland Park.

“It was dangerous before. It’s even more dangerous now with what’s been done.”

As Holscher continued, Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, the committee chair, cut her off and said she was “a little off course.”

“You’ve misread the bill or misconstrued what the bill says,” Hilderbrand said.

Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, said there were already religious exemptions in place for day care centers and schools.

The bill, he said, only clarified that schools and child care facilities could grant religious exemptions from vaccination requirements without inquiring into the sincerity of the religious beliefs.

“The only thing we’re changing is that you cannot question what my religious belief is,” Hilderbrand said.

“There is no scare,” he said. “We’re not adding anything or changing anything. We’re clarifying.”

State law requires day care facilities and schools to require vaccines and provides religious exemptions on the basis of their faith.

For schools, state law requires a parent or guardian to sign a statement that the child adheres to a religious denomination that’s religious teachings are opposed to inoculations.

Each child in a day care facility is required to have current immunizations as determined by the state health secretary.

An exemption is available if a parent or guardian signs a statement saying they adhere to a religious denomination whose teachings are opposed to immunizations.

It was immediately unclear how far school administrators or day care owners go to investigate claims of faith made by parents who don’t want their kids vaccinated.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said there is no data showing how often school officials look into the religious faith of a student seeking a vaccine waiver.

He said the organization generally counsels school districts against asking those kinds of questions when someone asking for a vaccine exemption.

However, Connie Satzler, senior operations manager for the Immunize Kansas Coalition, flagged language in the bill that gives her pause.

She noted that the vaccine language redefines a religious exemptions as a “philosophical exemption” because it covers “nontheistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is
right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

“Philosophical exemptions lead to decreased vaccination rates and increased risk for disease outbreaks,” Satzler said in an email.

Democrats said the vaccine amendment was being moved through the process too fast without giving the public a chance to comment on the proposal.

“This is vastly expanding what we’re talking about here,” said Democratic state Sen. Pat Pettey of Kansas City.

“It’s very imperative that we look into something, particularly when we’re expanding into childhood vaccinations,” Pettey said.

“We are talking about vaccines for our children and we’re talking about the safety of all, and we’re not talking about religion,” Pettey said.

“We have regulations in place for that very reason, so we don’t have outbreaks of measles or diphtheria within our schools or day cares,” she said.

Republican Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee said it was a matter of religious freedom.

“I don’t see the problem with this at all,” Thompson said.

“All we’re doing is reaffirming the people’s religious rights as enshrined in the state constitution of Kansas, which is very, very broad,” Thompson said.

The bill, as it passed out of committee, still requires pharmacists to fill prescriptions for  ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drugs for treating COVID-19, although Steffen has accused the medical establishment of promoting propaganda that he says keeps Kansans from learning about all available treatments.

Steffen has acknowledged that he’s being investigated by the state’s Board of Healing Arts but hasn’t disclosed any details.

He has, however, acknowledged prescribing ivermectin to patients for COVID.

And he has said that doctors are being “intimidated, fired and professionally belittled over prescribing these medications in an attempt to help relieve suffering and prevent death.”

The Board of Healing Arts said it has opened 50 total investigation for unique individuals related to COVID-19, although there are only 32 open at this point.

The agency has 559 total investigations open of all types.

Steffen said his bill is not related to the investigation, although the legislation is retroactive to disciplinary action on or after March 12, 2020 – before even the first case of COVID was reported in Kansas.

The bill says it shall not be considered unprofessional conduct for a physician to prescribe or recommend a treatment for COVID-19 that  is not backed by licensing boards, the state health department and the FDA.

The bill allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions unless they are used to treat or prevent a COVID-19 infection.

The new bill also removes provisions that would have given physicians and pharmacists immunity for damages, fines or penalties from damages for prescribing the drugs.

Hilderbrand said the premise of the prescription bill was to address complaints that the Board of Healing Arts was investigating doctors for prescribing off-label drugs, and the Board of Pharmacy was “coming down on some pharmacists for filling off-label drugs in this case.”

It was those complaints that recently led a House budget subcommittee to defund the board’s investigations of all FDA-approved, off-label prescriptions. The amendment was later removed from the bill.

Some lawmakers have expressed that state regulators are demonizing physicians who are urging their patients to seeking alternative treatments.

Kansas Action for Children issued a statement on Tuesday voicing concern about the bill and how it can affect students.

“By not even holding a hearing on provisions that would add new exemption language for required immunizations for public school and child care attendance, the committee is skirting the legislative process and putting Kansas children at greater risk of health issues,” said Heather Braum, health policy adviser for KAC.

“When even a few parents refuse to vaccinate their children,” she said, “they put everyone in their community at risk for dangerous diseases, particularly those with weakened immune systems due to chemotherapy, transplants, or other health problems.”