Maine’s vaccination rate for children has been slipping, raising the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases such as whooping cough and measles.

But pediatricians say a new state law to provide vaccines at no cost will reverse that trend and make young Mainers among the nation’s best-protected once again.

“We wanted to make sure there was no barrier to getting the vaccines,” said Dr. Lawrence Losey, a pediatrician in Brunswick who worked on the legislation for several years.

Once the law is phased in, all standard immunizations will be “available at your doctor’s office no matter what insurance you have or do not have,” he said.

The law, ceremonially signed by Gov. John Baldacci on Monday, requires health insurance companies to pay annual assessments depending on how many children are enrolled in their plans. The state will use the money to buy vaccines for all Maine children and distribute the doses to physicians.

Because the state can negotiate for discounts of as much as 40 percent, more children will be immunized at about the same cost, said Rep. Gary Connor, D-Kennebunk.

Connor said he expects the program to cost the companies about $10 million to $15 million a year. “That’s $10 (million) to $15 million they would already be spending on vaccines anyway,” for fewer children, he said.

The state-purchased vaccines are not expected to be available until 2012. First, the governor must appoint a board to organize the effort, including deciding which vaccines to buy.

Years ago, as many as 84 percent of Maine children received all of their recommended vaccinations, one of the best rates in the country. Cuts in federal funding, increased costs and the fact that more families have to pay for vaccines out of pocket because of insurance deductibles have combined to push the rate down to about 74 percent. The national average is 76 percent, Connor said.

“Right now Maine is below the national average, and many of us find that unacceptable,” said Connor, a licensed pediatric nurse who does medical research for a living. Connor led the negotiations between doctors, insurance companies and others that produced the new law.

Outbreaks of whooping cough in Maine are a sign that risks have grown, Connor said. Measles outbreaks in other parts of the country and polio outbreaks in other parts of the world are additional reminders that the diseases can return without routine immunizations, advocates say.

Connor said he hopes the new program will boost the state’s vaccination rate by at least 6 percentage points.

“I certainly hope that we’ll get above 80 percent. If you stay above the 80 percent, you tend not to get outbreaks that you otherwise would,” he said.

Maine’s health insurers didn’t support or oppose the new law, but were part of the negotiations and will help to oversee the program.

“We’d be paying (the cost of vaccinations) anyway,” said Katherine Pelletreau, executive director of the Maine Association of Health Plans. And, she said, preventing disease by increasing access to vaccines reduces health care costs in the long run.

“One of our goals as health plans is to get all of our members the preventive health care they need,” she said. “You want to keep people from getting sick if you can, and vaccines are for preventable diseases.”

The new law eventually will eliminate a two-tier system that requires each physician to keep one supply of government-subsidized vaccines for qualified families, such as those in MaineCare, and a separate supply for privately insured patients. The law will simplify the entire vaccination chain and reduce health care costs overall, said Losey, the pediatrician.

And those benefits ultimately will mean vaccinations for more Maine children, Losey said.

“What this is about is saving lives and stamping out disease,” he said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]