MS Coast hospitals hope courts block federal vaccine mandate for health workers

·7 min read

One of South Mississippi’s biggest health care providers says it may not be able to stay open if a pending court decision on the legality of a federal vaccine mandate doesn’t give them some relief.

If the mandate is enforced, the fear is the health system will be cut off from federal health care money and won’t have enough workers to keep operating.

“I’m not a worrier,” Singing River Health System CEO Lee Bond said Friday. “But I would say that this situation is as much a cause for concern as COVID itself, in many ways. Because if we lose a certain percentage of our caregivers ... it is going to significantly cripple the health care delivery system in the entire region.

“I’ve never been as concerned for the future of health care as I would be if the mandate is implemented,” Bond added.

Singing River said that if the suit filed in a Louisiana federal District Court by 12 states including Mississippi doesn’t block the federal COVID-19 vaccine requirements for staff at health care facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs, the health system will not comply and would therefore face fines and removal from the federal insurance programs.

“Right now we need every qualified hand, and that happens to include unvaccinated workers ... we are hopeful that the lawsuit will delay the mandate, that logic and humanity will overhaul political division. If it does not, we are going to have to consider the entire spectrum of options. At the moment, we have no plans to terminate anyone.”

A lack of payments from Medicare and Medicaid would be a huge loss for Singing River and may compromise its ability to operate, Bond said, as over 60% of the health system’s patients use the insurance.

Singing River is prepared to risk the financial losses in order not to terminate the roughly 30% of its unvaccinated workforce, he said, because the mandate could also exacerbate South Mississippi’s chronic health care workforce crisis and leave a sizable portion of the region without care in one of the states hardest hit by COVID.

“We are not in a position to absorb any fines. We’re gonna fight the mandate in any way that we legally can,” Bond said. “If you’re not allowed to see Medicare and Medicaid patients, there’s no system in America that could survive if they implement that.”

Pfisner vaccine shots were given to approximately 200 Biloxi School System staff and teachers by Singing River Health System Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Biloxi High School sports arena.
Pfisner vaccine shots were given to approximately 200 Biloxi School System staff and teachers by Singing River Health System Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Biloxi High School sports arena.

The Mississippi Coast’s other leading health system, Memorial at Gulfport, said it will comply with the mandate if the court rules against blocking the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ vaccine requirement by Jan. 4 with no testing options. Human Resources Director Tony Alves said the hospital is anxiously awaiting the opposite decision, however, with just shy of 70% of its workforce vaccinated.

“As we wait to hear back on (the lawsuit) we are still moving forward as if the mandates will take full effect on Jan. 4,” said Alves. Enforcing the mandate and retaining Medicare and Medicaid patients would serve the community best, according to Alves.

“Essentially, we have to comply with it. We’re going to do that just so we can continue to give the health care that we’re duty-bound to provide for our neighbors, our families, our loved ones, the community.”

Louisiana-based Ochsner Health, which has a sizable presence along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in August announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its physicians, providers and employees, saying they are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 29.

The health care provider has faced some push back from its Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana, locations, which resulted in the delay of the mandate at their facilities after a lawsuit challenging the requirement was in October moved forward.

Ochsner, Louisiana’s largest non-profit healthcare system and one of the region’s strongest supporters of employee vaccination, said they will not make decisions on termination or discipline for the Shreveport and Monroe employees until the courts rule on the matter.

South Mississippi nurses resist vaccine mandates

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services COVID mandate is set to affect 17 million health care workers across the country, who need to have at least a first shot by Dec. 6 in order to meet the Jan. 4 deadline.

The Biden administration has previously set vaccine mandates for federal workers, contractors and private businesses over 100 employees, all of which have been wildly unpopular in South Mississippi.

Workers at Pascagoula-based Ingalls Shipbuilding, one of the largest federal contractors along the Coast, have long resisted vaccination and mandates. Ingalls last week suspended its vaccine requirement so as to not lose a significant portion of its workforce. A lawsuit filed by Mississippi challenging the mandate for federal contractors is also pending.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana has already granted an emergency stay blocking vaccine mandates for private businesses.

Nurses have been a group opposed to vaccination, according to Coast health officials, so the CMS mandate would cause the termination of a sizable chunk of employees.

“We are in favor of vaccination, and the science and the math support it. However, we are staunchly opposed to a mandate. And the reason for that is...there’s a national labor shortage, and in particular, for front line caregivers. So a mandate when we literally need every available qualified hand in the state of Mississippi is just short-sighted,” Bond said.

Hope in the lawsuit against the CMS mandate

Mississippi joined in the lawsuit against the CMS mandate filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana by Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia.

The lawsuit claims the vaccine mandate attempts to “justify an unjustifiable and unprecedented attempt” at federalizing public health policy and lessening states’ constitutional rights.

“For nearly two years, health care workers have cared for the sick and dying at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

“Now, for no other reason than the President’s desire to check the box on universal vaccination, these heroes are being forced to choose between vaccination and their jobs. We have trusted them with our health for two years; we owe them the respect that they know how to best care for their own now.”

Bond said he was told a decision should come from the lawsuit before Dec. 6, the deadline for health care workers to get their first shots.

Vaccine mandates work, but hospitals can’t afford to lose staff

Workplace mandates have proven successful in bumping up vaccination rates among American employees.

“In general, vaccine mandates work,” James Colgrove, a public health professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told ABC News.

At the end of September, when the vaccination mandate for federal contractors was announced, Ingalls was around 50% vaccinated, a spokesperson said. In the weeks following the announcement, about 25% of the extremely vaccine-hesitant workforce received their shots.

But the stakes for losing any employees in health care is too great, Bond said, to take a chance on enforcing a mandate.

“I’m not a worrier. But I would say that this situation is as much a cause for concern as COVID itself, in many ways. Because if we lose a certain percentage of our caregivers in the state of Mississippi, it is going to significantly cripple the health care delivery system in the entire region,” he said.

CMS may not budge, but hospitals are hopeful for legal success

Coast hospital officials said it’s unlikely CMS will retract the mandate or extend the deadline for health workers to get their shots.

“If you want to receive federal funding for your patients, you have to comply with our rules,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure told The Washington Post.

If the mandate isn’t permanently blocked for the CMS workforce, Alves said Memorial is optimistic the courts could offer a temporary stay so hospital administration could push out more educational materials on the vaccine and asses further exemption opportunities for staff.

“I don’t think anybody here at Memorial anticipates where it’ll be like completely taken away. We think that if the stay happens, it’ll delay the mandate for a few months, or possibly a year, which would then allow us the time to make sure that we have those safety precautions and all those other things in place so that when it does go into full effect,” Alves said.

“We’re checking the docket like almost hourly, it seems like just to see if anything changes, so that we can have more time.”

This article and live event is supported by the Journalism and Public Information Fund, a fund of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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