HELENA — Lawmakers narrowly endorsed a bill Thursday to add the chickenpox vaccine to those required for public school students in Montana.
Ten Republicans voted with all 41 House Democrats in advancing a version of House Bill 158 that also requires the whooping cough vaccination for all students, removing a previous exception for children over 6.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, introduced the bill at the start of the 2015 legislative session to allow the state health department to set vaccine requirements, acknowledging that federal recommendations change.
It was amended in the House to list varicella and pertussis requirements instead of giving discretion to the department, which MacDonald said did not change her original intention.
The sponsor later opposed other amendments by House Republicans that added personal beliefs as a reason parents could choose not to vaccinate their children. Existing exemptions involve medical and religious reasons.
House representatives also removed penalties that come with falsely claiming an exemption.
That version passed the House with little opposition in early February because, MacDonald said, she did not yet understand or voice to her colleagues that allowing personal exemptions could result in fewer immunized children.
“I didn’t see at the time that personal beliefs could open the floodgates for every childhood disease to re-enter the population,” MacDonald said.
The measure was amended in the Senate to remove the personal exemption that MacDonald called an apple to her orange of a bill. When it passed back to their chamber, a handful of House Republicans contested the latest version.
“Many of us voted for this on the floor specifically because the personal exemption was in there and otherwise would not have supported it,” Rep. Nancy Ballance said before voting against the bill.
MacDonald reminded the House that Montana is the only state that does not require chickenpox vaccinations to attend public school. Representatives then sent it forward on a vote of 51-49.
The bill, which no longer touches the issue of vaccination exemptions, must pass a final vote before heading to the governor’s desk.
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