Educating Parents to Improve Vaccination Rates

It’s no secret that many states including Arizona are struggling to maintain enough vaccination coverage to achieve “herd immunity”.  Herd immunity simply means that you have enough vaccination coverage to protect the entire community – including people that for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated and folks who’ve been vaccinated but still may be susceptible (because vaccines aren’t 100% effective). Generally, herd immunity happens when a community has a vaccination rate above 95%.

A couple of months ago the ADHS released their latest school reporting data on vaccine exemption rates (medical, personal and religious).  Here’s a 2-page summary of some of the results.  This year’s report covers the 2017-2018 school year. The data show that:

  • Immunization rates have decreased across all age groups from 2012 to 2017;

  • Personal exemption rates continue to be highest in charter schools, followed by private and public schools in 2017; and 

  • Overall personal exemption rates increased in the last year- going from 3.9% to 4.3% for pre-school; 4.9% to 5.4% for Kindergarten and 5.1% to 5.4% among 6th graders.

Requiring kids in public school to be vaccinated is one of the most important public policy tools to ensure herd immunity.  Arizona does that through statutes labeled ARS-872 & ARS-873 – which require kids to be vaccinated if they attend public school (unless they have an exemption). In Arizona, there are medical, religious, and “personal” exemptions. The problem over the last few years is that more and more parents are exercising the personal exemption option.

According to our current statute, parents can get a personal exemption if they “… sign a statement to the school administrator stating that (they) have received information about immunizations provided by the ADHS and understand the risks…” (as defined in R9-6-701-708). Despite numerous interventions to improve immunization rates among AZ school children- we continue to lose ground. In several parts of the state and among certain demographic groups (high income zip codes and some charter schools for example) we’ve lost herd immunity- which means we’re at real risk for outbreaks.

Arizona’s public health system has been doing some creative work to improve our immunization rates. One of my favorites is an innovative on-line immunization education course that’s designed to serve as part of a potential new personal exemption process. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health worked with a University of Arizona medical student and the ADHS Immunizations Program to design and conduct the test pilot program. The new education course was piloted at 16 schools in Maricopa County (8 elementary, 5 middle or junior high and 3 high schools) last school year.  The pilot objectives were to:

  • Learn how to best implement the immunization education module developed by ADHS in Maricopa County schools;

  • Get feedback from school staff regarding the use of the module to ensure a smooth rollout in the future; and

  • Identify whether parents learned new information about vaccine preventable diseases and vaccines using a brief anonymous pre-and post-knowledge assessment survey.

The pilot was small & wasn’t designed as a formal study and therefore wasn’t able to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the modules- but it’s a promising intervention that has a good chance of helping improve immunization rates.

There’s a lot of interest among a host of public health stakeholders in continuing to pursue this educational (informed consent) process as part of the personal exemption process.  I’m optimistic that executive branch decision-makers will recognize the value that a more robust parent education policy can have in improving rates and that AZ will continue to develop and implement this innovative intervention.

Part of what makes me optimistic are comments that the Governor recently made during an interview with the Arizona Republic in which (about 25 minutes into the interview) he states that “This is a public-health issue, I’m a big believer in freedom and choice on a lot of issues, but… if your kid’s going to be in the public-school system in Arizona, they’re going to be vaccinated.”

The bottom line is that despite our work to date, vaccination rates continue to decline and are below the herd immunity threshold in some parts of the state and among some demographic groups.  Additional interventions are clearly needed.  Perhaps the education modules will help.  But it may be that the only real solution is to look to other states that have eliminated the personal exemption.  California provides a promising case study.

CA Eliminates Personal Exemption & Vaccination Rates Improve

California has also been struggling to maintain herd immunity vaccination rates- especially in higher income areas.  After trying a variety of interventions- and following a measles outbreak associated with Disneyland, CA passed Senate Bill 277 (SB277) in 2015 which abolished all nonmedical exemptions in California.

Their intervention worked.  In the following years, CA had sharp increases in vaccination rates among kindergarteners entering school. During the 2014–2015 school year the statewide kindergarten full-vaccination rate was only 90.4%. After implementing the new law, the kindergarten full-vaccination rate rose to >95% and has stayed there. 

By the way- a few months ago the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles found that the CA law didn’t violate freedom of religion or the right to an education. The court said that… “Compulsory immunization has long been recognized as the gold standard for preventing the spread of contagious diseases”.  The court said the new law was not discriminatory and was a valid measure to protect public health.

CMS Opens Door to Waivers that Subsidize Weaker Health Insurance Plans

Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act gives the HHS and the Department of Treasury authority to review and potentially approve a “State Innovation Waiver” related to Marketplace insurance if a state’s waiver application provides “coverage to a comparable number of residents of the state as would be provided coverage absent the waiver” and “provides coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver”, and “doesn’t increase the Federal deficit“.

If a state’s waiver is approved by HHS, a state can get pass-through funding equal to what they would have received without the waiver.  Back in 2015 the Obama Administration issued guidance regarding the requirements to get a 1332 waiver. 

Last week CMS replaced the 2015 guidance with new guidance for 1332 waivers that would (if the guidance stands up to judicial review) allow states to implement what CMS is calling “State Relief Empowerment Waivers”.  It’s a name they invented- not a name that’s outlined in the ACA.  The new guidance will likely have an impact beginning in the 2020 open enrollment period- not the current open enrollment period.

CMS says they will now allow a wider range of insurance coverage levels in waiver requests, including plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s basic coverage requirements. For example, state 1332 waivers will now be able to include Association Health Plans and short-term limited duration insurance. Under the guidance, states could get a federal subsidy to subsidize the purchase of these plans. 

To be honest I don’t think the short-term limited duration insurance part of the guidance will stand up to judicial review because the ACA states that the waivers must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver. Short term limited duration plans and some association health plans do not.

Association Health Plans and short-term plans don’t necessarily include coverage for essential health benefits, which can leave plan participants with high out-of-pocket costs or discourage individuals from seeking timely treatment. For example, short term plans don’t usually cover pre-existing conditions and generally don’t offer coverage for behavioral health services, prescription drug costs, or maternity care.

Under the new guidance, CMS’ analysis of affordability and coverage will be based on the types of coverage made available to state residents rather than on the coverage that residents buy.  Again, I wonder how they’ll keep this in accord with the statutory ACA requirements of 1332 waivers. 

CMS says their analysis will focus on the aggregate effects of a waiver rather than on the effects on a subgroup of state residents. In other words, CMS will consider the overall improvements in affordability and coverage for state residents- even if there’s a negative effect for a subset of folks. 

Right now, there are only eight 1332 waivers (they were approved under the 2015 guidance).  Those 1332 waivers mostly focused on reinsurance programs to lower premiums in the federal marketplaces.

Weigh in on the US Department of Homeland Security’s new “Public Charge” Rules

The US Department of Homeland Security is proposing new changes to what is commonly referred to as their public charge’ rule.  If they’re adopted as-is, the new regulations would make it harder for families who are following all the rules of legal immigration to enter the U.S. or obtain a green card to become a legal, permanent resident. This means people trying to become new Americans legally would risk their status simply by turning to available services of Medicaid (and possibly CHIP/KidsCare), SNAP (aka food stamps), Medicare Part D, and housing assistance. You can learn more about what “public charge” is here

DHS is accepting public comments on their rule package through December 10.  We’d like your help to put together comments from the Arizona public health community.  Here’s some background:

DHS already uses information about whether applicants for legal permanent residency receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when they evaluate applications.  After these proposed new rules are adopted, they’ll also consider whether applicants receive Medicaid (AHCCCS), Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), and Section 8 Housing program.  Once adopted, applicants that receive any of these benefits will be far less likely to be approved for a status change or stay extension.  I didn’t see any exemptions for children- so presumably benefits used by any noncitizen family member including kids would count.  Here are some take-aways from the proposal:  

  • This is an issue of legal immigration- unauthorized migrants are largely ineligible for public assistance;

  • The use of public benefits by citizen children would not be considered a public charge;

  • This does not directly impact green card holders (the public charge test is not applied to green card holders applying for citizenship);

  • While CHIP (KidsCare) hasn’t been included in the proposed list of benefits that will count against individuals, the proposal draft seeks comments about whether CHIP should be included;

  • The proposed rule is not retroactive – meaning the public benefits received before the rule is final will not be counted as a public charge; and 

  • The proposed rules would not apply to refugees because existing statute prevents DHS from using the criteria for refugees.

  • Even though the new draft doesn’t include vaccinations (VFC), WIC and marketplace insurance- many families will believe that the regulations do include these benefits and will elect not to use these important safety net benefits- as doing so will risk their immigration status.  As a result, families will have a more difficult time improving the health status of their families.  An estimated 200,000 Arizonans will be impacted directly and many more may avoid using services they need due to fear and misinformation. The good news is that your voice matters! 

Turning in public comments matters because: 1) Federal law requires the government read and consider every unique comment before issuing a final rule and significant or copious comments could slow down the process and give policymakers more time to reconsider the final rule change; 2) Comments can later provide an opportunity to challenge the regulations in court; and 3) Comments give our communities a chance for their voice to be heard.

DHS will group all identical comments and count them as one comment. To make the most impact, it’s important to add your own words and ideas to your comments so it can be counted as a unique comment. Take a moment to highlight how your professional career or personal experiences has informed your view of what the Feds are proposing.  Below are example comments for you to consider using or modifying, along with your own words, and step by step instructions on how to submit your own comments.  

I oppose the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed rule change to “public charge.”  The policy will undermine access to essential health, nutrition, and shelter for immigrants and their family. One in four children in Arizona, and nearly 20 million children nationwide, live with at least one immigrant parent. By forcing choices no family should have to make, it puts our whole country at risk. This will policy is short-sighted and will only create costs shifts to states as well as create, bigger more expensive problems down the road. DHS should immediately withdraw its proposal. 

A community’s overall health depends on the health of all of its members. The proposed rule change will lead to higher rates of uninsured adults and children. Without insurance, families may delay care or forego it altogether. This means there will be more children in school, and adults in the workplace, without needed preventive services and untreated illnesses. Treatment for life-threatening conditions such as asthma keeps children in school. More people delaying care until the last possible moment will strain emergency resources. Hospitals’ and clinics’ uncompensated care burdens will increase. Children with Medicaid and CHIP have better health as adults, with fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits; they also earn more and pay more in taxes. 

CHIP (KidsCare in Arizona) is designed especially for working families and should not be considered a public charge. Including CHIP would be a double hit to families who work hard and play by all the rules of our immigration system only to have the American dream become that much more unattainable. 

The loss of access to SNAP would further exacerbate food insecurity. SNAP is a critical source of support for struggling households; research shows how SNAP lifts people out of poverty, reduces hunger and obesity, and improves school attendance, behavior, and achievement. The consequences of food insecurity are especially detrimental to the health, development, and well-being of children.

We’ll be turning in public comments on the rule change before the December 10 deadline…  but please consider turning in your own unique comments!

History of Considering Public Benefits

The term “public charge” as it relates to admitting immigrants has a long history in immigration law, appearing at least as far back as the Immigration Act of 1882.  In the 1800s and early 1900s “public charge: was the most common ground for refusing admission at U.S. 

In 1999, the INS (DHS didn’t exist yet) issued Rules to “address the public’s concerns about immigrant fears of accepting public benefits for which they remained eligible, specifically medical care, children’s immunizations, basic nutrition and treatment of medical conditions that may jeopardize public health.” Here’s that final Rule from 1999, which didn’t include Medicaid our housing benefits in the public charge definition.

National Medicaid Performance Measures for Kids Released

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program serve nearly 46 million children which is 33% of the kids in the US- which means that these programs are a huge leverage point for improving health outcomes.  Measuring the effectiveness of these programs is critical to improving their performance and in providing the information needed to design policy interventions.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services plays a key role in promoting quality health care and as part of their accountability standards they have a core set of health care quality measures for children in Medicaid and CHIP that by applying a standardized set of measures designed to measure and improve the quality of care. 

The 2017 Child Core Set includes 27 measures among the following domains of care: 1) Primary Care Access and Preventive Care; 2) Maternal and Perinatal Health; 3) Care of Acute and Chronic Conditions; 4) Behavioral Health Care; and 5) Dental and Oral Health Services. 

CMS released this year’s “Chart Pack” last week, which includes an analysis of state performance on 19 of the reported measures.  Arizona reported data from 11 of the indicators.  I Haven’t had the time to dive into the details, but if you’re interested in learning more you can explore the performance measures and the results in the September Report

Several More Insurers Enter AZ Marketplace

Consumers who buy their health insurance from the federal marketplace at will have new options and new prices to consider before they make a decision for 2019 coverage. During the upcoming open enrollment period (November 1 through December 15)  there will be 4 companies to choose from with several different plans.  Pima County will go from 1 to 3 companies for 2019 and the remaining 13 counties will continue to have BlueCross BlueShield of Arizona as their insurance company.

Because financial assistance for Affordable Care Act plans is tied to the price of the price of a Silver plan in each county or zone, Arizonans will generally see more financial assistance and little, if any, change in their current monthly premium. 90% of Arizonans who get coverage from receive financial assistance in the form of refundable tax credits to help lower their monthly premium.

November 1 to December 15 is open enrollment this year at  Free local help from unbiased health insurance Assisters is available by calling 1-800-377-3536 or by visiting

Here’s Why We Endorse the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona Initiative

The AzPHA Board of Directors has endorsed Proposition 127- the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona ballot initiative. Proposition 127 would increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) which is a mandate that electric utilities acquire a minimum amount of electricity from renewable energy sources. Here’s the actual  Proposition 127 Ballot Language

As of 2018, Arizona’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) is 15% renewable by 2025. Proposition 127 would increase our RPS each year until reaching 50% in 2030.

The Initiative defines renewable energy as electricity generated by  solar, wind, certain hydropower, geothermal, and landfill gas energy.  The definition of renewable energy under the initiative doesn’t include nuclear power. For our state, most of the new renewable energy that would be created would probably mostly be solar.

APS reports it currently generates about 12% of its energy from renewable sources which includes utility-owned plants and power being generated by customers through rooftop solar.  Tucson Electric Power reports 13%. Right now, Arizona gets 6% of its electricity from solar power.

It’s no secret that Arizona Public Service (APS) doesn’t want Proposition 127 to pass.  Their current strategic plan  is to mostly meet future electricity needs by building new gas-fired power plants.  You can see the resource plan APS filed at the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2017 and APS’ recent RFP for new power plants to get an idea about their current strategic plan.

This is an over-simplification- but the public policy question posed by Prop 127 is whether it’s in the public’s best interest to meet future generation demand with mostly natural gas plants or solar.

There are compelling health reasons why Proposition 127 makes sense from a public health perspective. Burning fossil fuel, including natural gas, creates air emissions (oxides of Nitrogen and volatile organic compounds) that form ozone. Ozone adversely affects human health by increasing cardiovascular and respiratory disease.  It can decrease lung function and causes more people to visit emergency rooms or even be admitted to the hospital because of asthma or allergy related illnesses. Some studies have even linked preterm birth to air pollution.

But, if it turns out that the health benefits from cleaner air come at the cost of higher electricity prices- then the health gains from the improvement in air quality would need to be weighed against the public health costs to low income folks who already struggle to pay their electric bills- worsening the social determinants of health for low income people.

Before we took a position on Proposition 127, I and our Board carefully examined what impact the initiative might have on future electricity prices.  After all, income is a primary driver of health status, and if the Initiative were to increase electricity prices more rapidly than under the current RPS standard, then it could end up having a net negative impact on public health among low income Arizonans.  That’s why we carefully examined the cost issue before taking a position.

One of the best and most objective sources of information about the relative costs of generating electricity I found is the US Energy Information Administration’s 2018 report entitled  ”Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2018”.   The report examines capital, operational and transmission costs as well as off sets from the tax credits.  It takes a little time to read but worth the effort.

The bottom line is that solar energy generated using photovoltaic cells is on par or slightly cheaper than energy generated with natural gas.  Solar plants have a higher capital cost but lower variable (operational cost) because they don’t need fuel (free photons are the fuel).  Solar also benefits from tax credits- which is part of the cost equation.

One of the reasons why solar power is now slightly cheaper than natural gas energy is that the cost of solar panels has decreased rapidly in recent years (in part because of increased global solar panel manufacturing capacity in China).  The cost of utility-scale solar has fallen 77% since 2009.  The cost of battery storage fell 79% between 2010 and 2017.  Another reason why solar costs less in the long run is because of the federal tax credits that are available to utilities that use solar to generate electricity.

Prop 127 also requires 20% of renewable energy eventually be “decentralized” – basically roof-top solar.  That means incentives will be created to encourage solar installation. Done thoughtfully, that could provide an opportunity to prioritize installation of panels on homes in lower income areas, relieving pressure on monthly budgets of families who most need that relief while increasing the value of their property.

The bottom line is that after reviewing as many objective facts as we could find, we concluded that Proposition 127 provides net health and environmental benefits.  That’s why we’re supporting Proposition 127.

Some State Legislatures Tackling E-cigs

E-cigarette use by kids is growing across the nation including in AZ.  A couple of weeks ago the FDA Commissioner called out the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes for their clear efforts to market to teenagers and put them on notice that additional regulations could be on the way. 

All of you reading this have seen them around these days.  They have various looks.  For example- some of the most popular ones mimic USB flash drives so that they’re easily disguised adults (teachers and parents).  They even actually plug into an USB port for charging!

Almost all of them contain nicotine which is of course highly addictive, harmful to adolescent brain development, and a health danger for pregnant women. E-cigarette aerosol can also contain cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals like lead, and volatile organic compounds. Evidence shows that even those without nicotine are harmful to the lungs.

E-cigs are now the most commonly used tobacco products among youth and young adults, with e-cigarette use growing 900% among high school students from 2011 to 2015.  In 2016, more than two million U.S. middle and high school students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

Middle aged e-cig users are quite different from younger users. Most middle aged e-cigarette users (aged 45 years and older) are either current or former regular cigarette smokers.  Less than 2% had never been cigarette smokers!  In contrast, among 18-23 year olds, 40% have never been regular cigarette smokers. A big concern is that many of these younger e-cig users will transition to actual cigarettes.

Some states have implemented legislative approaches to combat e-cigarette use. Pricing is among the most frequent interventions.  Raising the price of e-cigarette reduces demand just like for other tobacco products, especially for younger users- that tends to dominate the approaches. Legislation to increase the price of e-cigarette products fall into three categories: 1) price increases based on the current sales price; 2) pricing e-cigarettes and vapor products at the same rates as regular cigarettes; and 3) imposing a per milliliter (ml) price increase on liquid nicotine or consumable material.


Percentage Price Increases

Two states have established percentage price increases for e-cigarettes. Pennsylvania increased the price of e-cigarette products (i.e., the electronic oral device with heating coil, battery, etc., as well as the liquid or substance used in the e-cigarette) by 40%.  Minnesota increased the price of tobacco products including e-cigarette products by 95%.

Washington state introduced a bill that would raise the prices of vapor products by 60%. In New Mexico, an amendment was introduced to raise the price of e-cigarettes by 76% of the product value. This would be an increase from the current 25% set out in statute.

Legislators in New York recently introduced two bills (A011338 and S01089) to treat e-liquid cartridges as “tobacco products” and increase the price of cartridges by 75% of the wholesale price. A governor’s budget proposal in Rhode Island called for raising the price of e-cigarettes by 80% of the wholesale cost. Similarly, Kentucky proposed an amendment to increase the price of e-cigarettes by 15%.


Pricing Equalized to Cigarettes

California is adopting regulations to increase e-cigarettes prices equal to their Cigarette Distribution Tax ($0.10 per cigarette).  District of Columbia increased the price of vapor products equal with the rate imposed on a pack of 20 cigarettes.


Price Increases Per Fluid Amount

Six states increased prices of vapor products, liquid nicotine, or consumable material per fluid ml. Delaware (vapor products), Kansas (consumable material), Louisiana (vapor products and e-cigarettes), and North Carolina (vapor products) added $0.05 per fluid ml. Louisiana’s law increased the price of consumable nicotine liquid solution or other material containing nicotine that is depleted as a vapor product.

New Jersey passed legislation raising the price of nicotine liquid by $0.10 per fluid ml. West Virginia increased the price of e-cigarette liquid by $0.075 per ml.  Puerto Rico legislature approved a bill to increase the price of e-cigarettes by $3, nicotine cartridges by $0.05 for every millimeter of nicotine solution or any other substance in each nicotine cartridge, and vaporizers by $6 for every unit.

Legislation increasing the price of e-cigarettes, other electronic smoking devices, and e-liquids can encourage users to quit, seek and sustain cessation, prevent youth initiation, and reduce consumption among those who continue to use them. Many states have taken proactive steps to stem the tide using the fact that young people are price sensitive. Perhaps we’ll see some proposals from the Arizona State Legislature.  However, how successful the effort will be depends on the makeup and view of the next legislature and governor.