Conservative Republican lawmakers on Thursday revived a proposal to weaken Kansas' vaccination requirements for children enrolling in school and day care and to make it easier for people to get potentially dangerous treatments for COVID-19.
The Senate health committee approved a bill that would allow parents to get a no-questions-asked religious exemption from requirements to vaccinate their children against more than a dozen diseases, including measles, whooping cough, polio and chickenpox.
The measure also would limit pharmacists' ability to refuse to fill prescriptions for the anti-worm treatment ivermectin and other drugs for off-label uses as COVID-19 treatments.
The bill goes next to the full Senate for debate. The Republican majority there also is considering a proposal to greatly limit the power of the state's public health administrator to deal with infectious diseases and another to ban all mask mandates during future pandemics.
“When you put them all together, it's a lot of negative bills,” said Democratic Sen. Cindy Holscher, of Overland Park.
The measure approved Thursday would require schools to grant an exemption to parents who say vaccinations violate their religious or strongly held moral or ethical beliefs without investigating those beliefs.
A law enacted in November granted a similar, broad exemption to workers seeking to avoid COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“It allows the day care-aged kids' parents and school-aged kids' parents to enjoy the same freedom of religion that everyone else would,” said Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican.
But Sen. Kristen O'Shea, of Topeka, broke with fellow Republicans in opposing the measure and noted Thursday that the committee didn't have a hearing on weakening childhood vaccination requirements.
She said during a meeting earlier this month: “It’s really scary to think that we’re in a society that’s going to bring back measles and polio and whooping cough, et cetera.”
The committee approved a version of the bill early last month, but it became tangled in a dispute over congressional redistricting that involved Steffen. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, sent it back to the committee for what a spokesperson called “some tweaks.”
The measure also is shadowed by a state medical board investigation of Steffen, an anesthesiologist and pain-management specialist from Hutchinson. While Steffen disclosed the investigation and acknowledged trying to prescribe ivermectin, he has said the probe deals with his public statements about COVID-19 and not patient care.
Steffen pushed the previous version of the bill, which would have required pharmacists to fill all prescriptions of drugs for off-label uses in treating COVID-19. Kansas law allows pharmacists not to fill prescriptions they deem inappropriate or potentially harmful.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved ivermectin to treat infections of lice, roundworms and other tiny parasites in humans. The FDA has tried to debunk claims that animal-strength versions of the drug can help fight COVID-19, warning that large doses can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, delirium and even death.
The new version of the bill says pharmacists still can refuse to fill drugs for off-label COVID-19 treatments, unless they object only because it's for treating the novel coronavirus.
The measure prohibits the state medical board from disciplining doctors over such prescriptions, but the committee dropped a provision that would have made that ban apply at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Steffen said Thursday that he believes doctors who prescribe ivermectin and other drugs to treat COVID-19 can show that they're doing what other reasonable physicians would do in similar circumstances. That's the standard the state medical board uses to determine whether a doctor is providing adequate care.