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Conn. Public Health Bills On School Vaccines, Aid In Dying, Pregnancy Services Make A Return

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
A crowd gathers at the legislative office building in Hartford ahead of a 2019 public hearing on childhood vaccination regulations.

Several public health proposals are making a comeback to the legislative arena this year, including a couple that have sparked significant controversy in past sessions.

The COVID-19 pandemic cut short the 2020 legislative session. Lawmakers managed only a few weeks of committee meetings and a handful of public hearings before the Capitol was shut down in late March.

This year’s session and public health committee events will take place almost entirely through virtual communication, and that has some advocates concerned that it may be hard to interact with lawmakers on what may be hot-button issues.

Elimination Of State’s Religious Exemption From Mandatory School Vaccinations

Connecticut requires children to get a range of vaccinations for diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio and others in order to attend primary school and child care centers.

There are two exceptions to those requirements. Families can obtain a medical exemption, signed by a licensed physician, when a child cannot get vaccines due to valid medical reasons such as certain diseases or treatments that compromise the immune system.

Families can also opt out of vaccines when they believe that immunizing their child goes against their religious beliefs.

A majority of children in Connecticut do get vaccinated, but the state Department of Public Health has noted a rising number of religious exemptions in recent years, prompting lawmakers to again push for the elimination of the exemption.

A public hearing last February went on for more than 20 hours with hundreds of speakers and even more who showed up to protest the bill outside the legislative office building. Shortly after, in a 14-11 vote, the committee passed the bill and moved it to the House of Representatives, but no further action was taken after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Legislation this year is still being drafted. Several lawmakers during recent committee meetings opposed including the bill in the current session. They argued that a virtual public hearing would be an insufficient forum for debate and discussion.

Aid-In-Dying For Terminally Ill Patients

If passed, an aid-in-dying bill would allow physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to Connecticut residents with terminal illnesses who wish to die at the time of their choice.

Lawmakers have tried for several years to pass a law similar to what exists in states like Oregon, Maine, Colorado, New Jersey and others. Connecticut’s version has never been voted out of committee, including in 2019.

Qualified patients in Connecticut would include residents who have six months or less to live because they are in the final stages of an incurable or irreversible medical condition. Patients would have to be mentally competent to make the request and at least two doctors and other witnesses would need to sign off on it.

Bill opponents in the past have testified that other people, particularly residents with severe disabilities, could suffer discrimination and possible harm if a law like this were in effect.

Several members of the public health committee objected to raising this bill in the current session.

“It is not of urgency at this time, especially with COVID and what’s going on with people dying,” said Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, a Republican representing Bethany, Cheshire and Prospect. “I don’t believe, in this virtual reality we’re in, it is the place nor is it the urgency to raise this at this time.”

However, Sen. Will Haskell, a Democrat representing towns in the southwest corner of Connecticut, pushed back.

“For the constituents in my district who are suffering from a terminal illness, or watching their loved ones suffer under a terminal diagnosis, there is real urgency to this bill,” he said.

The bill was raised by a majority committee vote.

Deceptive Advertising Practices Of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers

The bill would mostly affect faith-based pregnancy centers. Supporters, including those who have testified at previous public hearings, say some of these centers have misled women with “false” or “deceptive” advertising on what they offer in reproductive medical services, counseling or treatment.

Crisis pregnancy centers generally provide women with counseling and resources. Some are licensed to perform limited medical services like pregnancy tests or sonograms. Many are religiously affiliated, and proponents of the bill claim that some centers have used deceptive practices to lure women away from health clinics that provide abortions.

A state law could create stricter oversight and enforcement by the Attorney General’s office, including penalties.

Opponents of the legislation and center workers have testified that they are transparent and clear about the services they provide.

Sen. Heather Somers, a Republican representing the southeastern corner of the state, said with no recent patient or consumer complaints filed with state agencies, a bill like this is not warranted.

“This is a bill that is providing a solution for a problem that we just don’t have,” she said. “No one wants to see women be deceived, but that is just not happening in the state of Connecticut.”

In 2019, the bill was passed out of committee and voted through the House of Representatives, but it ultimately was not taken up by the Senate.

“We are simply putting through a bill that has passed out of this committee and has passed the House of this state, and we are moving forward with it again,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, committee co-chair and a Democrat representing Westport.

A majority voted in favor of moving forward with a bill this session.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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