A judge has blocked the federal government from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers in Iowa and nine other states.
Matthew Schelp, a U.S. district judge in Missouri, ruled Monday that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not have authority to order hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers to vaccinate all of their workers.
"Truly, the impact of this mandate reaches far beyond COVID," the judge wrote. "CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans."
Schelp granted a preliminary injunction, which had been requested by Iowa, Missouri and eight other states. His order blocks a federal government plan to deny Medicare and Medicaid funding to health care providers that failed to mandate COVID vaccinations for their employees by Jan. 4.
Many Iowa hospitals and some nursing homes have invoked vaccination mandates as a way to protect patients and residents from being infected with coronavirus carried in by employees. The federal rule would require all health care providers to have such mandates.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds joined multi-state lawsuits against such federal vaccination requirements, including for health care employers.
The Republican governor applauded the judge's ruling on Monday. “I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19, but I also firmly believe in Iowans’ right to make health care decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families, and I remain committed to protecting those freedoms," she said in a statement released by her office. "President Biden should do the same."
Iowa nursing home leaders have noted they already face challenges in recruiting and retaining staff. They have aired concerns that care for vulnerable Iowans would be harmed if some of nursing home workers decided to quit rather than comply with a federal vaccine mandate.
Brent Willett, president of the Iowa Health Care Association, said Monday that the nursing homes belonging to his association welcomed the judge's ruling. He said in an email the injunction "means that health care providers across the state will not face the prospect of ruinous fines and facility closure for now."
Willett said his group wants the federal government to drop the vaccine mandate, "and instead refocus its efforts on assisting health care providers with vaccination efforts through resource allocation and technical assistance, not regulatory punishment."
He said about 73% of Iowa nursing home workers have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. He said only a few Iowa nursing homes are requiring such vaccinations.
Many Iowa hospitals, including all eight in the Des Moines area, invoked vaccine mandates for workers this fall. Those mandates allow exemptions for specified religious and medical reasons. Hospital leaders have said most of their employees complied.
Some health care employers worried that if they complied with the state law they would face federal penalties, such as withholding of millions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid money.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a statement Monday evening that said the agency was reviewing the judge's ruling. The statement defended the mandate.
"The vaccine requirement for health care workers addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation’s health care system," it said.
Reynolds has joined three different lawsuits to block the Biden administration's vaccine push. The other lawsuits take aim at a mandate for large employers and federal contractors.
Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8449.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Judge blocks CMS COVID vaccine mandate for Iowa health care workers