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Business, hospital leaders concerned by W.Va. COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemption bill

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 7:16 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia lawmakers continue to advance a bill that would prevent companies from mandating all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The bill that was added to the ongoing Special Session by Gov. Jim Justice would allow people to be exempted from vaccine mandates for any medical or religious reason.

Bill requiring employers to have COVID-19 vaccination exemptions added to W.Va. Special Session

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and West Virginia Hospital Association have both voiced their opposition of the bill, claiming it could cost them millions of dollars. Leaders said the bill is poorly written and would contradict federal laws that already require them to have an exemption process for mandatory vaccinations.

“Right now the way the process works, and this is not a vaccine issue just for COVID, we’ve had these vaccine policies in place for years to include flu, hepatitis, measles, mumps,” Hospital Association President Jim Kaufman said. “It’s the same process that has been in place for years where anyone can request a medical or religious accommodation and the hospitals have different processes in place to review those.”

“So, for example, if someone is requesting an accommodation because they have a hangnail, well clearly that is not something why you could not get vaccinated,” Kaufman said. “The hospital would review that and deny it because we want to make sure we are providing all the effective tools to make sure we are safe for our health care workers and our patients.”

Kaufman’s main concern is the loss to Medicare and Medicaid funding, which makes up about 75% of hospital revenue, if they are caught between different state and federal rules. The federal government is working to provide guidance on vaccination exemptions, but it will not be released for a couple more weeks.

“I want to make sure we have enough health care providers to take care of the next wave of the pandemic,” nurse practitioner Del. Heather Tully (R-Nicholas) said about people that could be fired before the federal rules are in place. “There is also no guarantee that if you are vaccinated that you are not going to become a carrier as well, so vaccinated people can become infected just as easily as anyone else can. So, you know, the vaccine is not going to prevent all of that, and I just want our young people, especially our young nurses to stay in the state and care for their own.”

Tully said the state already deals with a hospital staffing problem, and laying off employees just because they have refused to get vaccinated could make it even worse. She disagrees with Democratic lawmaker’s concerns that people will take advantage of the bill because of the broad language that allows for exemptions.

“We need those nurses at the bedside taking care of those patients and not terminated leaving the state,” Tully said. “It really is about the employer and employee relationship and ensuring we have a balance in this state.”

“The bottom line here is we are doing something that is completely, completely circumventing the system,” Del. Doug Skaff (D-Kanawha) said during a Thursday morning press conference called about the bill. “It’s not needed, it’s unnecessary, and it was given to us in the dark hours of the night in a special session when we’re supposed to be focusing on redistricting.”

“I feel that some exemptions are definitely needed,” Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) said. “A medical exemption that is looking out for the life and safety of the patient, the person that is getting the vaccination, that’s legitimate. But if you look at this bill, it’s so broad that it grants exemptions because someone feels it is not necessary. That’s not a medical exemption and that’s why the bill, weather you are for it or against it, it needed to be properly vetted. It’s not written very well and maybe that’s why the governor chose to put it out in the dark of night.”

Skaff cited religious exemption cards that are available online for sale. He said someone could purchase a card for $150 on Facebook and use that are proof to get around their business’s vaccine mandate.

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said this law could open the door for businesses to be sued for attempting to protect their workplace safety. He said the bill is too vague and will lead to mistakes being made by both businesses and employees.

“What it really does is open the door for a lawsuit,” Roberts said. “It’s very confusing. The interpretation of it will be very confusing for employees and employers. It does not end up protecting the rights of employers or employees, and so it’s a mess.”

“(Business owners) have deep fears about passing a bill that tells an employer what that employer may and may not do,” Roberts said. “Because they believe the person who knows the most about their workplace is the person who is in that workplace.”

House Republicans tried to speed up the process and vote on the bill during a Thursday floor session but were three votes short of the four-fifths needed to suspend rules. The bill will now be up for a vote, on the normal timeline, on Friday and would be sent to the Senate if it is passed.

Tully said House leadership is willing to come back in for another special session to change the law if it contradicts with new federal laws that could be passed in the coming weeks.

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