WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers embraced a broad, nearly unenforceable immunity from liability for vaccine makers in the event of a vaccine-related death or serious illness last month, edging Democrats closer to a showdown with the White House over who should be held accountable for the 1986 autism epidemic.
In a Dec. 28 vote, the House by a 424-0 margin passed a new, broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act, H.R. 3199, that expands already broad immunity from civil liability for vaccine makers to include injuries caused by vaccine ingredients such as mercury, which science scientists have linked to autism.
During debate over the law, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) noted that vaccine manufacturers had been sued in 1,200 cases to recover damages for any vaccine-related injury or death — and that fewer than 100 lawsuits resulted in a win for the plaintiff.
But in the past several years, thousands of parents have filed such lawsuits. Often, there was a strong connection between vaccines and autism.
For the GOP, the reality has become too big to ignore.
“You don’t want to see the country’s health care system shot to pieces,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), co-author of the new legislation. “This is how the American people receive their health care in this country.”
In a report to Congress last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 15,000 children in the United States now suffer from autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a related developmental disability. In 2010, the CDC said, about 1 in 88 children in the United States was affected by ASD.
As the new measles outbreak this week in Washington, D.C., shows, it’s a new public health threat to be worried about.
The illnesses are highly contagious — as many as 400 people can be exposed to one case of measles on a weekday, according to the CDC.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told a House subcommittee recently that the new bill grants patent protection to three companies — Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Theraclone Sciences — that manufacture vaccines. These and other vaccines make up nearly three-quarters of children’s vaccines on the market.
“This legislation moves us in the opposite direction — it gives a free pass to vaccine makers who failed to protect all Americans from vaccine safety issues,” Cummings said.
Experts say vaccines are the leading preventative method in the world, and that fundamental change to them is inconceivable without more thorough investigations of vaccine safety — which could lead to real vaccine safety and effectiveness concerns.
The legislation also would declare for the first time that failure to vaccinate children “would not constitute any form of violation of any mandatory vaccine mandates in the United States,” and that if vaccine makers are found to have breached that duty, “insurance policy holders against medical malpractice, bankruptcy, or personal injury would not be liable for any loss or damage caused as a result.”
Republicans are using the new bill as an opportunity to make a religious argument to them about morality. (Many of the new Republican lawmakers were once non-voters.)
“This is a clear invitation for religious freedom and a stark repudiation of the atheists, abortionists, and those who are skeptical of evolution and basic scientific knowledge,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said.
Some Republicans were a bit more reluctant to make the religious case.
“There’s such a dichotomy between your religious beliefs and the potential for litigation to take place,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Just last year, science-based scientists, legislators and groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center, a pro-vaccine group, pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study whether vaccination is associated with reduced rates of autism.
The CDC said the study was not warranted because there was not enough evidence to establish a conclusive link. (The agency, however, has said it will collect and analyze more data on the topic.)