Michigan Vaccine Freedom Political Action Committee: Promoting antivaccine policies in my state

Another election year, another primary season. Yes, primary season for the 2018 midterm elections is in full swing. Here in Michigan, we have a rather late primary (this year it’s August 7); so in reality the primary season is only just gearing up. Unfortunately, these days, whenever there’s a significant election, there are antivaccine activists trying to elect antivaccine (or at least antivaccine-adjacent or antivaccine-sympathetic) legislators, and this year is no different in Michigan. Yes, it’s another election year and the Michigan Vaccine Freedom Political Action Committee (MVFPAC), as well as other antivaccine groups, are showing signs of being busier than ever this year.

Why, you might ask, am I writing about this now? Simple. A childhood friend of mine, Mindy Denniger, is running for the Michigan House of Representatives. Sadly, she doesn’t live in my district, which means that I can’t vote for her. She’s very pro-vaccine, and my current state representation is most definitely not. In fact, it’s because she is pro-vaccine that she sent me a copy of a candidate questionnaire that she recently received. Before I get to that, let’s look at why I might be less than happy about the current state of support for vaccines in the Michigan state legislature, making it receptive to pitches by antivaxers, even Del Bigtree and the crew that made an antivaccine propaganda film VAXXED.

You might recall that I’ve written before about the—shall we say?—less than pro-vaccine attitudes of my current state representation. For example, my current State Senator is Patrick Colbeck. I’ve written about him a few times over the last few years, first noting that, if he wasn’t actually antivaccine, he was at least antivaccine-sympathetic to the point of posting on his Facebook page how he was going to attend a screening of an antivaccine propaganda film in his district. Then, about a year ago, he was one of the co-sponsors in the Michigan Senate for SB 299 and SB 300, two bills that, if passed, would have made measles great again by eliminating a recently instated requirement by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) that parents seeking personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates must first travel to their county health department for educational instruction on vaccines and the diseases they prevent. Also, MDHHS had changed the rules so that schools could only accept the state-sanctioned exemption form, which included a statement that, by signing the form, parents acknowledged that they are putting their children and others at increased risk of serious illness. Not only that, but the bills would have barred MDHHS from promulgating any rules like this in the future without a new law. But that’s not all. The bills would also have barred local health officials from keeping unvaccinated children out of school in the event of an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease. They would have had to seek permission from MDHHS.

Truly, I wasn’t exaggerating when I wrote that Sen. Colbeck tried to make measles great again, noting that the MDHHS took action because of Michigan’s abysmal vaccine uptake rates that have lead to outbreaks, particularly a large pertussis outbreak in 2012, out of which was born a campaign by a mother whose baby died of pertussis to increase vaccine uptake. There have also been measles outbreaks.

But what about my State Representative, Jeff Noble? Yes, he co-sponsored the house versions of these bills, HB 4425 and HB 4426! Also, when my wife and I wrote to him to express our concern about how public health-unfriendly these bills were, he painted his support for the bill as reining in an overweaning bureaucracy that had “overstepped its boundaries” and basically told us, thanks for contacting his office, but bugger off. Still, of the two, Rep. Noble is probably the least bad. Of late, Sen. Colbeck, being term-limited this year, decided to run for governor, and in the process has really let his antivaccine freak flag fly, while showing that he is a victim of, if you’ll excuse the term, crank magnetism when he expressed alarm about “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and his support for bills to do something about it. Even worse, he’s shown himself to be a racist bigot when he attacked a Democratic candidate for governor, Abdul El-Sayed, as having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (based on his parents), alleging that he’s part of a “civilization jihad” plot by Muslims to “change our system of government” in America by implementing Sharia law. It was so bad that even the Detroit house organ of the Michigan Republican Party, the Detroit News, strongly criticized Colbeck for his rant, while Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called him a “bigoted fool,” which is accurate. Colbeck, unsurprisingly, doubled down and issued a disingenuous press release.

You can see why I feel…underrepresented…at present and why I particularly dislike Patrick Colbeck. Also, the MDHSS requirements are working. Personal belief exemption (PBE) rates are declining and vaccine uptake is increasing.

But back to the antivaxers. As you know, many groups send candidates questionnaires on the issues, asking for their responses and positions. My friend Mindy got one, and it came from MVFPAC. Here’s the cover letter:

Michigan Vaccine Freedom Political Action Committee

Michigan Vaccine Freedom Political Action Committee

I’m going to stop right here in order to address the claim that the MDHHS somehow “overstepped its bounds.” It did not. The way things work in Michigan, regulatory agencies draft rules, and such proposed rules must be approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan legislative committee charged with the legislative oversight of administrative rules proposed by state agencies. Basically, JCAR reviews state agency regulations and, if it takes no action, allows them to go into effect after 15 legislative days. The committee is composed of lawmakers, giving it a legislative imprimatur, but it is not the Legislature itself, thus avoiding the political rancor that can accompany debate on controversial issues. Antivaccinationists have described this as a “stealth move,” but it was entirely legal. Yet, antivaccine groups relentlessly try to portray MDHHS as having overstepped its legal authority in instituting its rule. Jeff Noble parroted that line. So did Patrick Colbeck. So does MVFPAC.

Let’s take a look at the questions. Here’s question #1:

Michigan is one of seventeen states that allows [sic] a philosophical exemption for vaccinations for children entering daycare and school. Thousands of parents have expressed how grateful they are to live in a state where parents have the freedom to make the decision whether or not, or how, to vaccinate their children. They know how precious health care rights are, and want to know who in the legislature they can count on to preserve their rights.

I support an individual’s/parent’s right to make vaccine decisions for themselves and their children.

Note the framing. Note the intentionally misleading way that the problem is stated that make it very hard not to answer yes without sounding like a fascist. As they say, subtlety is not these people’s strength. I would not have accepted their framing and answered, “I support school vaccine mandates.”

Next up, question #2:

Michigan law provides a clear, simple process for citizens to exercise their choice to exempt from vaccine mandates. However, the State Department of Health and Human Services has exceeded state law by issuing a mandate requiring parents to meet personally with employees of county health departments before granted [sic] a vaccine waver for their child to attend school of daycare. These in-person meetings are not required by state law but rather imposed by administrative rules. Our members find these mandated meetings to be a substantial burden and many department employees to be demeaning of their vaccine decisions Parents are forced to provide private health information about their child without their consent, which violates privacy rights they have through federal privacy laws (FERPA). Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC supports legislation that protects the privacy of children’s student health records and prohibits unelected government agencies from exceeding state statues with regard to vaccine exemptions.

a) I support requiring legislative approval before unelected state or local agencies can add additional burdens on parents or individuals seeking to exercise their vaccine waiver rights.

b) I would sponsor or cosponsor legislation prohibiting unelected state or local agencies form imposing any additional burdens on individuals or parents seeking to exercise their vaccine waiver rights.

Note the super loaded, super slanted language again. This is a recurring tactic.

I’ve already explained why antivaxers’ claim that MDHSS somehow exceeded its authority by imposing the requirement that parents seeking PBEs go to their county health department for education. I also highly doubt that the employees there are so very, very disrespectful to such parents. The reason, of course, is that antivaxers tend to equate criticism of their beliefs or even don’t show what they consider to be sufficient deference to their views. Indeed, I have little doubt that just having to go to the county health center colors antivaxers’ perception such that basically anything said to them is perceived as disrespect.

But what is FERPA? In brief, it’s the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. It applies to all schools that receive federal funds. The law gives parents certain rights, such as the right to inspect and review the student’s education records maintained by the school and the right to request that a school correct records which they believe to be inaccurate or misleading.FERPA also protects privacy by requiring that schools have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record. There are exceptions, however, such as for financial aid evaluation, law enforcement. Immunization records kept by the school fall under FERPA.

Now, I’m not a lawyer (obviously), but I’m not seeing what the relevance is here. From reading a bit, basically, the schools appear not to be allowed to disclose to health departments immunization records, but health departments are not under the act. In any case, MDHSS is charged with overseeing the issuing of personal belief exemptions. Existing policy doesn’t require parents to tell the health department anything other than that they are requesting a PBE waiver. So what do antivaxers mean by Michigan policy violating FERPA? It took some digging, but I found this testimony, which includes a marked up copy of the Michigan vaccine waiver form at the end. There, circled, is an instruction for the school to file the exemption in the child’s permanent record and to send a copy to the health department. Next to it is markup that says “This instructs schools to violate FERPA.”

No it doesn’t, at least not as far as I can tell. Look above that line. There is a line for a signature from the local health department. State and local health departments are not covered by FERPA, and the local health department already knows that the parents attended vaccine educations class. I suppose the state could eliminate even this highly dubious objection by copying the form itself. Personally, I hae to wonder why, if MVFPAC thinks that their claim that MDHHS policy is violating FERPA is so clear, it hasn’t filed suit. At least, if anyone has, I haven’t heard about it or been able to find any information about it. Also, that’s not what the form says, anyway. The form seems to be saying that the meetings with county health officials in order to obtain a PBE violate FERPA. That doesn’t sound correct, given that the health department isn’t covered by FERPA.

Oh, well, I’m sure some lawyer somewhere will tell me if I’m too far off base.

Finally, question #3:

Some employers and educational institutions discriminate against citizens who exercise their vaccine exemption rights by denying services and/or employment for something as simple as declining a flu shot. Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC supports legislation that would prohibit any institution that receives taxpayer funding from engaging in such discrimination.

a) I support legislation that prohibits tax-funded institutions from discriminating against individuals who exercise vaccine choice.

b) I would sponsor or cosponsor legislation that prohibits tax-funded institutions from discriminating against individuals who exercise vaccine choice.

Yes, antivaxers really, really, really hate vaccine mandates for healthcare workers. So it’s not surprising that this question would be on their candidate form.

Sadly, as election season in Michigan cranks into full gear, I expect more activity from our local antivaccine activists, like MVPPAC and its sister antivax advocacy group, Michigan for Vaccine Choice. If you just peruse the MVC site, you’ll find a slick website, full of helpful antivaccine propaganda and tactics for influencing legislators. For instance:

Attend Legislative Coffee Hours
You’re invited to meet with legislators each month right in your own community. It’s a great way to get to know your legislator and like-minded citizens, while sharing the importance of vaccine choice. When you join MVC, we’ll pair you with a legislative liaison in your district.

Do we provaccine advocates have anything like this? Not to the same extent. Not even close.

I’ve commented several times about how antivaccine views are held by people across the political spectrum but of late the loudest and most influential people promoting antivaccine pseudoscience and policies are on the right. the reason is because antivaxers have co-opted freedom, personal rights, and parental rights as being aligned with their view that there should be no vaccine mandates of any kind. Antivaxers have come to realize that appealing to “rights” and “freedom” is a winning message that gets small government conservatives fired up, even if they are not antivaccine.

It’s happening in Texas, and it’s happening in Michigan, albeit not (yet) to the same extent.