AUGUSTA — Maine parents would have to consult with doctors before exempting their children from vaccinations required by public schools, under a bill that won endorsement from a legislative committee Friday.

But despite Maine’s relatively high vaccine opt-out rates, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to reject a separate bill that would have eliminated the philosophical exemption that has sparked a heated debate over vaccine safety and “herd immunity.”

The committee voted 9-3 in support of L.D. 471, the bill that would require any parent who seeks a philosophical exemption from vaccines to first consult with a medical professional and obtain a signature. Lawmakers from both parties supported the measure; the three dissenting votes were cast by Republicans.

“There are risks in every medical procedure and other things that we do in life, and I think parents have a right to weigh those risks,” said committee co-chair Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook. “But I think this is an important step to make sure that important conversation happens with respect to something that doesn’t just protect the child being vaccinated, but other children as well.”

The bill could face tougher votes in the House and Senate, and a potential veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine now allows parents to opt out of required vaccines for their children on both philosophical and religious grounds. The vast majority of exemptions are for philosophical reasons, a trend that reflects concerns in some segments of the population that childhood vaccinations could trigger autism or health problems.

Medical professionals and scientific research assert that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe for recipients, and provide what is known as “herd immunity” – in which high vaccination rates help protect those who are too young to be vaccinated or those with weakened immune systems.

An outbreak of measles that sickened hundreds in California last winter has elevated the debate over vaccination exemptions to the national stage.

Maine has one of the highest voluntary opt-out rates for children entering kindergarten in the country, at 5.2 percent in 2013-14 and 3.9 percent in 2014-15. The opt-out rates at dozens of schools exceed 10 percent, raising concerns that the lack of “herd immunity” could lead to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as measles, polio and pertussis.

A Portland Press Herald analysis of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that at 39 primary schools, 20 percent or more of the students had not had a measles shot while least 60 elementary schools had vaccination opt-out rates exceeding 10 percent.

Tonya Philbrick, who directs the Maine CDC’s immunization program, told committee members Friday that Maine’s overall vaccination rates have held steady or increased since 2009 and are comparable to national averages. But Philbrick acknowledged that there are pockets with higher opt-out rates.

“In any community where the immunization rates might not be up to the state average, I don’t want to say that there is an air of concern, but I think there are opportunities for education and dialogue to happen between parents and those (vaccine) providers,” Philbrick said.

KEEPING THE EXEMPTION

Committee members sent a strong message that they support the current exemption option by voting unanimously to reject L.D. 606, the bill that would have eliminated the option for parents of school-age children. The three members who voted against L.D. 471 – co-chair Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn, Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea and Rep. Richard Malaby of Hancock, all Republicans – opposed adding requirements on parents who are concerned about vaccinations.

Brakey said he felt the bill requiring parents to consult with doctors begins to encroach on parents’ ability “to make choices about what goes into their children’s body.”

“I”m very uncomfortable pushing a decision like that,” Brakey said. “When there is risk, there should be choice.”

Ginger Taylor, a parent who’s heavily involved in preserving the philosophical exemption, said she and others concerned about vaccine risk were “very, very pleased” with the overall results. While she hopes the Legislature will ultimately reject L.D. 471, she echoed comments from some lawmakers that she hopes it will lead to more open dialogue between doctors and parents.

“This is a difficult issue,” Taylor said afterward. “The committee listened to us and they heard us.”