Bill to let pharmacists give vaccines to children 5 and older heads to governor’s desk; 11 Senate Republicans vote against it

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to allow Kentucky pharmacists to order and administer vaccinations to children down to the age of 5 has gained final passage, but only after several senators voiced their concerns about the bill and four of them changed their votes from “yes” to “no.”

Since 2017, Kentucky pharmacists have been able to administer vaccinations to children as young as 9, and younger with an order from a health-care provider. The age was lowered to 3 during the Covid-19 public health emergency to help increase access to care, but that law is set to expire Oct. 1.

The original version of Rep. Danny Bentley’s House Bill 274 would have allowed pharmacists to order and administer vaccinations to children as young as 3, with the consent of a parent or guardian, but this was
increased to age 5 in a committee substitute to appease the Kentucky Medical Association.

Sen. Stephen Meredith, who presented the bill to the Senate, lauded it as a way to “fix a problem,” noting that Kentucky ranks lower than five of the seven surrounding states when it comes to childhood vaccinations.

“Kentucky is facing a public-health crisis in regard to childhood vaccinations,” the Leitchfield Republican said. “It does not introduce any new vaccine mandates. It does not expand the scope of practice of pharmacy. It does not replace well-child checkups.”

The Senate gave final passage to HB 274 on a vote of 26-11 on March 22. It will now go to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk for his signature or veto.

Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, withdrew two floor amendments that she had filed, one to ban requiring students to get the Covid-19 vaccine for “enrollment, employment or medical treatment” and the other to require employers to offer religious or medical exemptions for vaccinations to all employees.

(On the same day, Tichenor’s Senate Bill 295, to prohibit the requirement of a Covid-19 vaccine for any individual for the purposes of student enrollment, participation in any school-based program or extracurricular activity, internship, acquiring or maintaining a professional license or receiving a health care services, was approved with a committee substitute by the Senate Health Services Committee on a vote of 8-2.)

The bill Meredith carried, HB 274, passing the House without dissent on March 5, ran into opposition in the Senate.

Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, voted no and said she was “baffled” about the discussion, arguing that there is no longer a need for pharmacists to administer vaccines to younger children because the public-health emergency is over.

“I know our pharmacists have been administering vaccines, when we’re in a state of emergency,” she said. ” And we’re done with emergencies. . . . Are pharmacists dispensing drugs or are they administering vaccines?”

Tichenor also voted no, voicing concerns that the bill allows pharmacists to give vaccines to a child without knowing their medical history: “I think it’s a little bit reckless to be issuing out vaccines that do have potentials for bad adverse events, and to be opening a door where it can be easy or easier, more accessible with less oversight.”

Sen. Shelley Funke Frommeyer, R-Alexandria, questioned the safety of the additives in vaccines: “We are continuing to promote and advocate something that isn’t actually [in] your control. It’s now in the doctor’s or the pharmacists,” she said. “We must own our health. We must be committed to our children’s health.”

Meredith lambasted his colleagues who voted against the bill, speaking to the challenges that people in rural Kentucky have when it comes to getting access to care.

“It’s easy to assume that people have access to care, particularly rural Kentucky. It’s not there,” he said. “What do they do if they don’t have it? . . . That’s very easy to say, ‘Just get in your car and drive a few miles up the road.’ If you think that way, then you don’t really understand rural Kentucky.”

Meredith added, “If you’re voting against this based on principle, you’re cheating the children of Kentucky, particularly rural Kentucky. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am in that.”

Other Republican senators voting against the bill were Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown, Tichenor, Johnnie Turner of Harlan, Stephen West of Paris and Gex Williams of Verona. Changing their vote from “yes” to “no” were Republicans Robby Mills of Henderson, John Schickel of Union, Brandon Smith of Hazard and Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville.

Kentucky kids still playing vaccine catch-up

Access to routine vaccinations remains crucial, especially among kindergarteners, a group whose routine vaccinations seem to have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

In November, Kentucky Health News reported that uptake of the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine in the state increased in 2023, after three years of decline, but the remains below the national average and the level needed to protect the population from measles, a highly contagious disease that has cropped up in several states.

Most of the routine childhood vaccine rates for kindergarteners remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to the state Department for Public Health Kindergarten Immunizations Dashboard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a wealth of information about the safety of vaccinations and the American Academy of Pediatrics calls for the on-time, routine immunization of all children and adolescents “as the safest and most cost-effective way of preventing disease, disability and death,” it says.

Kentucky’s schools require students to provide up-to-date immunization records at the beginning of each school year, unless a student is exempted for religious or medical reasons.

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