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Idaho’s dismal immunization rate targeted

Tue., Feb. 23, 2010, 4:47 p.m.

BOISE - With Idaho’s child immunization rate among the worst in the nation, lawmakers are revamping the state’s immunization reminder system to try to cover more people.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of SB 1335 - a measure sponsored by the committee’s chairwoman - to automatically enroll Idaho children in the reminder system unless their parents opt out. Currently, Idaho’s one of just five states where parents have to actively opt in to the reminder and tracking system.

“This is something that will help so many parents,” said Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Idaho’s immunization rates are so low that its rate for measles is lower than that of Indonesia, Pakistan or Croatia, and its rate for polio is below that of Botswana, Latvia and Sri Lanka, according to the Idaho Division of Health. Overall, just 57.6 percent of Idaho children have the recommended immunizations, according to the 2007-08 National Immunization Survey. Washington was at 73.7 percent, and the national average is 77.2 percent.

Still, Lodge faced opposition from the Idaho Freedom Foundation to her bill. Lobbyist Eric Makrush told the committee his group is concerned about “protection of parental rights,” and said, “We think the opt-in program is actually working pretty well.”

Susie Pouliot, CEO of the Idaho Medical Association, stressed that Idaho’s immunization registry and reminder system would remain voluntary. “Individuals maintain their right to not have their information included,” she told the senators.

Rebecca Coyle, program manager for the Department of Health and Welfare immunization program, said, “We see a lot of parents opt their children into the registry even if they choose not to receive immunizations, simply because it’s documented, for a school or for other medical providers.”

But the opt-in system is incompatible with most medical providers’ electronic health records systems, Pouliot said, creating high costs for providers and barriers for using the system.

Idaho’s IRIS system, or Immunization Reminder Information System, is a secure, Web-based system available only to medical providers. It can generate reminders for providers, or if they choose, even send postcards to parents to remind them when kids are due for shots.

“A lot of people don’t come in just because they don’t track it, but if you remind them, they’ll come in,” said Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Welfare.

Last year, Idaho ranked 50th for immunizations, Pouliot said, among the states and the District of Columbia. Only Montana ranked worse.

The down side has included significant outbreaks of pertussis, or whooping cough. In 2009, Idaho’s Medicaid system covered 17 children diagnosed with pertussis; three infants were hospitalized at a cost of $14,000.

Pouliot said the legislation will help. “We believe this is one of the best tools we have for increasing our voluntary immunization rates in Idaho,” she said.

As of Jan. 31, there were 687,667 Idahoans of all ages enrolled in the IRIS system. Shanahan said many adults joined after getting their H1N1 vaccines this year.

“It’s just a good, Web-based record,” he said.

The bill has been endorsed by the Idaho Hospital Association, the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians, and numerous other health groups. It now moves to the full Senate.

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