Politics & Government

Kansas weighs stripping vaccine authority from health officials after opponent outcry

As Kansas struggles to overcome vaccination rates that are among the lowest in the country, the Legislature is considering requiring future mandatory vaccines for school children to be approved by lawmakers, a proposal health officials fear will politicize the process.

On Thursday, a legislative committee provided vaccination opponents a high-profile platform to air their fears over a practice that is effective and encouraged by health authorities around the world.

Medical professionals responded by begging lawmakers to leave the current system in place, contending decisions about immunizations should be made by experts, not politicians.

A hearing on a bill to strip much of the power of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to mandate vaccines attracted more than 150 people to the Kansas Capitol, creating an extraordinary scene as people spilled out of the building’s largest committee room.

Under the legislation, all current vaccine requirements would remain in place but the Legislature would have to approve any future mandates. KDHE could only require a new vaccine if there’s an imminent public safety hazard. The agency currently holds the power to decide which immunizations are required for school attendance.

The bill’s future is unclear. The lawmaker who introduced the legislation, Rep. Steve Huebert, said the House Education Committee, which heard testimony, might not debate the bill.

Huebert, a Valley Center Republican and the committee’s chairman, said he wants to ensure a system of checks and balances exists between the Legislature and KDHE.

“Some people continue to say they don’t want politics to be involved,” Huebert said. “There’s always politics involved, and our role as legislators is to make sure the people’s voice is heard in politics and the medical scientific beliefs that are out there.”

Many of the supporters of the bill who spoke described how their children had suffered from side effects and diseases after receiving vaccines. Others said the list of vaccines recommended for children is expanding even as more children appear to suffer from allergies.

“Why should an unelected official have a say in the health of my children?” said Jerri Ann Miles, a Lawrence resident.

“Clearly, our children don’t need more vaccines,” said Rachel Price, also of Lawrence.

Kansas has been fighting low immunization rates related to diseases like HPV for years. Kansas ranks 49th among states for HPV vaccination rates of women and girls, according to KDHE. And for meningitis, Kansas ranks 46th.

KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said decisions about vaccines aren’t made up “out of thin air.” The agency relies on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immunization recommendations, he said.

Much of the current wave of frustration with vaccine mandates in Kansas dates back to KDHE’s decision in 2019 to add Hepatitis A and meningitis vaccines to the list of required immunizations for school children. Dozens of people — including parents — packed a June hearing on the proposal, voicing concerns that vaccine requirements give the government too much power. KDHE approved the immunization requirements anyway.

“It is important as lawmakers for you to understand that misinformation related to vaccines is widespread and it is that misinformation that is decreasing public confidence and not a lack of evidence that supports the safety of vaccines,” Sarah Good, CEO of the Kansas Foundation for Medical Care, said as she urged legislators to reject the bill.

Sharon Morris, director of the Kansas School Nurses Organization, said there are consequences to not immunizing. She recalled standing in a line to receive the polio vaccine as a child and how her mother didn’t know each year who would survive polio season.

“And so when the polio vaccine was available, she had her children in line to get the polio vaccine because she was not going to risk the lives of her children in that way,” Morris said.

The bill would move a public health issue “into a political arena,” she said.

Rep. Broderick Henderson, a Kansas City Democrat, said “as far as medicine is concerned, we all know it’s not perfect.”

“Any prescription you pretty much will take will say it’s going to have some type of side effects,” he said.

But ultimately, the Legislature shouldn’t be involved in vaccination, he said.

Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican, said concerns that the vaccination process would become overly political is “always a fear that you have to have.”

Nicole Asbury contributed

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.