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This week, the U.S. Senate passed legislation meant to end the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs, a Biden administration policy that was upheld by the Supreme Court in January.
With six Democrats absent from voting, the measure passed 49-44 along party lines, although chances are slim that it would pass the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, said in a statement that President Biden would veto the bill if passed.
In January, Supreme Court Justices handed down a pair of decisions that delivered mixed results in terms of White House efforts to establish widespread vaccine mandates. They ruled against the mandate that employees of large companies either get vaccinated or get tested weekly, but upheld the federal mandate for healthcare workers in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding to get vaccinated.
In that 5-4 decision, the Justices said the core mission of the Department of Health and Human Services is to ensure that the healthcare providers who care for Medicare and Medicaid patients protect their patients’ health and safety.
In many facilities, 35% or more of staff remain unvaccinated, according to the ruling. The COVID–19 virus can spread rapidly among healthcare workers and from them to patients, and it’s more likely when healthcare workers are unvaccinated.
“We accordingly conclude that the Secretary did not exceed his statutory authority in requiring that, in order to remain eligible for Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the facilities covered by the interim rule must ensure that their employees be vaccinated against COVID–19,” the ruling said.
Neither the mandate nor the Supreme Court ruling has sat well with conservative lawmakers, who have long opposed vaccine mandates. Senator Dr. Roger Marshall, R-MD, who delivered remarks on the Senate floor prior to the vote, said the mandate was all about control.
“Make no mistake, this federal vaccine mandate is not about public health or science – it’s about Joe Biden fulfilling his desire to control every aspect of our lives, and it’s a slap in the face to the hard-working men and women who never took a day off on the frontline fight against COVID-19,” Marshall said by statement. “Today is a huge victory for all the healthcare workers who ran to the sound of the COVID battle as Senate Republicans joined forces taking us one step closer to invalidating President Biden’s overreaching and harmful CMS vaccine mandate. These workers are the true heroes of the pandemic and deserve our best fight and utmost respect.”
Marshall went on to say that the mandate would exacerbate existing staffing shortages. This claim was refuted by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, who told the Washington Post that there has not been a mass exodus of healthcare workers leaving the field, as was feared, and that conversations with facilities “have been extremely encouraging.”
The White House, for its part, said the Senate resolution would expose patients to unnecessary risk. The vaccination requirement, the administration said, will protect the lives of both patients and healthcare workers, and give patients additional confidence about the safety and quality of their care – one of CMS’ key responsibilities.
“Vaccination requirements save lives,” the White House wrote in its statement. “Vaccines are proven to reduce the risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19. The prevalence of the virus and its ever-evolving variants in healthcare settings continues to pose a significant risk of staff contracting and transmitting COVID-19, putting themselves and their patients at risk. Healthcare staff being unable to work because of illness or exposure to COVID-19 further strains the healthcare system and limits patient access to safe and essential care.
“The Nation has made significant progress in combatting the pandemic. It makes no sense for Congress to reverse this much-needed protection for medically vulnerable patients, as well as our healthcare workers who have given so much to protect us. A vote for this resolution threatens the lives of patients and healthcare workers alike.”
THE LARGER TREND
CMS set a deadline of March 15 for healthcare workers to get vaccinated.
This applies to healthcare facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid in the 24 states subject to the Supreme Court ruling. The decision upholds the CMS mandate, at least temporarily, as the requirement is challenged on appeal. CMS released the guidance the day after the decision.
It applies to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.