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Colorado bill to tighten vaccine exemptions gets first hearing

Medical experts call vaccines one of the most significant achievements ever in public health and polling data shows Coloradans strongly support them, but still a measure to tighten vaccine exemptions for children is facing a heated political fight.

A bill seeking to increase Colorado’s low immunization rates by making the process to request nonmedical exemptions harder was killed last year after the Democratic governor and a vocal minority of parents opposed it.

Now, a revamped version is set to be heard in a Senate committee on Wednesday, and parents are again expected to fill the statehouse to testify against it.

Senate Bill 163 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Health & Human Services Committee after the Senate adjourns from its 9 a.m. session.

Although the bill has bipartisan sponsorship, with Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, signing onto it again, sponsors say they are struggling to get other Republicans on board. Opponents cite concerns about parental rights and privacy. Several Republicans have even introduced bills that would decrease vaccine requirements and increase consumers’ rights to choose.

Supporters of the vaccines bill say not only is the science and public support behind them, they’ve addressed all the concerns about privacy from last year and the bill doesn’t force parents to do anything. Gov. Jared Polis’ office has said he will support it.

The issue is “intensely debated here under the dome, but out in community and in my district and with the folks I’ve had conversations with throughout the state, it’s settled,” said sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, at a news briefing Tuesday morning. “Over 84% of Coloradans believe that vaccines should be required.”

Despite the data, the sponsors say they’re not calling for mandates, and they believe their bill is a compromise in a state where residents pride themselves on their independence.

House sponsor Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat, believes the proposed bill has a higher likelihood of passing than if it required mandates, as some other states have done.

“Colorado is unique and we like to do things the Colorado way here, and so we were really trying to come up with a solution that would move that needle but also address some of the concerns that we hear in regards to immunizations,” he said.

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