Idaho GOP leadership accuses state of unlawfully using vaccine record system

They allege records may only be kept for childhood vaccines

By: - April 9, 2021 11:52 am
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke

Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Republican leaders in the Idaho Legislature have accused the state of unlawfully using a vaccine record-keeping system. They are pushing for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to destroy its records on adult immunizations.

In a letter to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the House and Senate majority leaders said the state’s Immunization Reminder Information System contains records on vaccines received by adults over the years. They claim the system is only allowed to keep records on childhood vaccines administered to children — which they contend Idaho defines as age 12 and under, or spans preschool through grade 12.

Health care providers in Idaho enter vaccine information into the system after a person has been immunized against measles, whooping cough and other communicable diseases. Other states use similar systems.

“IRIS helps remind patients when immunizations are needed, provides patients with a permanent immunization record to help reduce unnecessary immunizations, and saves health care provider’s time when requesting patient records,” the department’s website says.

The IRIS website further describes how the system is meant to be used: “Immunization information systems are seen as an integral tool for (ensuring) that children and adults receive their immunizations according to recommended schedules. IRIS will help prevent over-immunizing, which may occur when health care providers are unaware of immunizations other providers have given.”

The records are secured and are available only to health care providers, child care providers and schools. Individual patients also can request their own records. Idahoans also may opt to have their records excluded from IRIS.

“As part of our due diligence, several members of the Legislature requested any of their own personal records that may have been reported to IRIS in an attempt to trace the reporting of the COVID-19 vaccines,” said the letter signed by Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Winder, House Speaker Scott Bedke and several other GOP legislative leaders. “These requests resulted in multiple reports listing adult vaccination records for multiple different vaccines over multiple years.”

Soon after the complaint was announced by House Republican leadership, Idaho’s Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen issued a public statement:

I appreciate the interest in patient privacy from Republican Legislative leadership and share their goal that patient privacy is a top priority. However, I am confident the Department of Health and Welfare has complied with state and federal law for many years and currently is in compliance with regard to collecting adult and children’s immunization data. In fact, we have worked closely for many years with the office of the Idaho Attorney General on this issue, and we look forward to their opinion on the matter. We hope that Idahoans of all ages will choose to be included in Idaho's Immunization Reminder Information System (IRIS) because it helps keep healthcare providers informed about their patients. For example, if a you get a flu vaccine at your pharmacy, because of IRIS, your doctor will be able to see that information and use it to inform treatment decisions. However, participating in IRIS is a choice. Idahoans can opt out at any time.

– Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen

The department has made no secret of the fact that IRIS includes the records of individuals vaccinated against COVID-19. With one exception — the Pfizer shot for 16- and 17-year-olds — children are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The state has been pulling aggregate data from IRIS to track vaccine trends during the pandemic. The IRIS data allow public health officials to see whether Idaho is meeting its duty to ensure that marginalized race and ethnic groups, and people in rural areas, have equal access to COVID-19 immunizations.

In a news release, Bedke said he believes the IRIS record-keeping “goes beyond simple regulatory overreach. This has the potential to be an abuse of the people’s trust.”

Winder said in the news release that IRIS “is intended to protect Idaho children and instead it’s being used to collect Idahoans’ health information without their knowledge.”

Health care providers are required to give patients information about a vaccine before they receive it. The fact sheets for the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, for example, tell the patient that their vaccine record may be entered into an immunization information system. The Moderna and Pfizer fact sheets explain that the record helps to ensure they receive the same vaccine when they return for a second dose.

The lawmakers contend that Idaho laws and regulations allow IRIS to be used for “the immunization status of Idaho children against childhood diseases,” not for Idaho adults’ records.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.