Holcomb signs bill to end health emergency, limit vaccine mandates

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Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday signed into law legislation to end Indiana’s public health emergency and limit employer vaccine mandates, shortly after state lawmakers sent the measure to his desk.

House Enrolled Act 1001 cleared the way for the end of the statewide public health emergency related to COVID-19 because it contains administrative language that Holcomb had said he would need to stop extending his executive order.

Holcomb signed a new order Thursday, effectively ending the health emergency. It had been renewed on a monthly basis for nearly two years.

The administrative language in the bill ensures Indiana continues to receive, at least for a time, the enhanced federal reimbursements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, and maintains the state’s ability to hold voluntary community vaccination clinics.

However, the bill cuts off Indiana’s participation in the enhanced federal funding for food assistance as of April 16, which is when the current federal COVID-19 health emergency expires.

The Indiana House voted Thursday to send the bill, which also contains watered-down provisions to limit employer vaccine mandates, to the governor. The House agreed to Senate changes to House Bill 1001 by a vote of 78-10, with most Democrats joining the Republican majority in supporting the measure.

A notable change the Senate made to HB 1001 was removing language that would have forced employers to accept any religious exemption to workplace vaccine mandates, without question.

The version on its way to the governor would allow employers to continue to accept religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, based on Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. It potentially gives employers the latitude to reject some religious exemption requests.

The bill would require that medical exemptions be accepted, but only with a signed note from a doctor, physician’s assistant or advanced practice registered nurse who says that the vaccine is medically contraindicated for the employee. And exemptions could be granted for “natural immunity” for employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies within the previous three months.

Bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said the final bill was not everything he wanted, but it was a “good step forward.”

Some House Democrats who initially opposed the House measure said the Senate changes made it acceptable.

“I think we’re at a pretty good place, seeming to strike a better balance between keeping employees safe and respecting religious and medical exemptions,” said House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, also said he thinks lawmakers “hit the appropriate balance,” even with the changes the Senate made to the initial bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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