For many, expedited bill to weaken vaccine mandates either goes too far or not far enough

A group of nurses who say they were suspended from Ascension St. Vincent for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 told Indiana lawmakers they hope new legislation will help them get their jobs back.

Among the dozens of Hoosiers who testified Tuesday during a seven-hour legislative hearing, the nurses were among the few who supported a preliminary draft of the bill.

Republican leaders are trying to speed the legislation through the Indiana General Assembly with final votes on Monday, weeks before the 2022 legislative session is set to start in earnest. The measure would effectively force private employers that mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees to allow for any medical or religious exemptions — no questions asked.

The nurses said their requests for religious exemptions were denied by Ascension St. Vincent. Representatives of the hospital system did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rochelle Rott, an intensive care unit nurse, said there is an urgency for lawmakers to fast-track restrictions for vaccine mandates because “thousands of nurses are losing their jobs.”

“What does this bill, if it passes, who does it hurt? It doesn’t hurt the unvaccinated … I am not going to give you COVID If you pass this bill. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll save your life when you come to the hospital,” Rott said.

The bill would also put in place three administrative actions Gov. Eric Holcomb said were needed to end the statewide public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020.

The preliminary draft, which has not been formally filed as a bill yet, was up for a joint informational public hearing on Tuesday before both the House and Senate Rules committees. But almost all testimony centered on the sections of the bill relating to vaccine mandates.

Almost everyone who testified said the bill went too far or not far enough.

Business interests generally said the proposal would discourage employers from imposing vaccine mandates. Medical groups similarly said the vaccine mandate language discourages vaccines and pushed back against ending the public health emergency too soon.

Vaccine objectors said the proposal did not do enough across the board, some saying vaccine mandates should be banned altogether.

Tammy Smith was another St. Vincent nurse who said her religious exemption was denied.

“I hope this bill passes. Maybe I’ll get my job back,” Smith said.

The language in the current draft of the legislation would allow employers to grant exemptions if the employee provides a written statement declining the vaccine “because of a sincerely held religious belief.” And a business must allow employees to claim these exemptions “without further inquiry.”

These protections may not help suspended nurses, like the group from St. Vincent, because of the federal vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid, which would supersede state law. That mandate is being challenged by Indiana and several states in court.

Some of the state’s largest business associations, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indy Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturers Association and the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, all were in opposition to such restrictions on businesses mandating vaccines.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is against the federal vaccine mandates and last week announced one of its top legislative priorities was to allow employers to make decisions whether to require the COVID-19 vaccine. This proposed legislation goes against that in another direction, Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said

Businesses are being “squeezed in both directions” between the federal government requiring vaccine mandates and calls for government vaccine mandate bans.

Brinegar said these proposed measures by Indiana lawmakers do not ban vaccine mandates, but could make the decision to implement a mandate more difficult.

“It significantly discourages employers from requiring vaccinations, which, in our view, is contrary to what Indiana has been doing for months and months, spending millions of dollars to encourage people to get vaccinated,” Brinegar said.

A specific concern he and the other business organizations pointed to was a requirement in the bill draft to offer weekly testing as an alternative to not getting the vaccine at no cost to the employee. Brinegar said that could be “incredibly expensive” for employers to cover. There was also a concern about the availability of testing to conduct it on a weekly basis.

Similarly, the state’s largest health care organizations also opposed the bill, saying it could prolong the pandemic.

Dr. Stephen Tharp with the Indiana Medical Association said “COVID is booming” and hospitals are still full with sick COVID-19 patients, and flu season is coming, too. He said he was concerned about ending the public health emergency too soon, and about the vaccine mandate language shifting the state’s messaging encouraging vaccination.

“We are concerned that this legislation which seeks to disincentivize vaccinations, will result in the prolongation of COVID-19,” Tharp said. “Prolonging the pandemic would be harmful to our health care system, and all parts of our society.”

Several people who also testified said the bill was a “half measure” and asked for outright bans on vaccine mandates.

Kristi Grabowski said her husband’s job is in danger because he refuses to get the vaccine, and he cannot get a religious exemption. She said he is being “discriminated against” by being asked to wear a mask and go through regular testing.

“I want to ask how my husband’s employer is qualified to determine if the level of my husband’s deeply held religious belief is sufficient,” Grabowski said.

In addition to discussion on the language in the bill, others wondered why the bill was being expedited. Legislators plan to come into session on Monday for a single day, bypassing committee votes to approve the proposed legislation with just votes on the House and Senate floor.

Brinegar said he’s never seen a legislative hearing held on a preliminary draft of a bill in the 42 legislative sessions he’s witnessed.

Democrat lawmakers also pushed back against the swift process. But Republican lawmakers defended the move, saying the matter was urgent because Hoosiers were in danger of losing their jobs.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m on the chopping block. I’ve been there for 25 years,’” Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said. “This can’t wait until January. We need to take this action now.”

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