JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — With the threat of withheld Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement hanging over its head, Ballad Health will comply with the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate that now has an official deadline for full vaccination.

“As we currently understand it, the requirement for being vaccinated includes a deadline for ensuring our team members are fully vaccinated, and that deadline appears to be in early January,” CEO Alan Levine wrote in a Thursday email to employees several hours after the Biden administration announced the deadline for employees to be vaccinated.

The hospital system, one of the region’s largest employers, has resisted requiring COVID-19 vaccinations and expressed concerns about losing staff in the event of a mandate, Levine noted. But the threat of losing reimbursement from payors that cover more than 70% of its patient base was more than the system could handle, he said.

“(F)ailure of Ballad Health to comply would be devastating to our region, as our hospitals would not be able to remain open,” Levine wrote.

He said the potential for losing some staff who resist vaccination also risks the system’s ability to serve the region as national staffing shortages continue to plague the industry and noted “we have urged that this mandate not occur at this time.”

Levine noted that 63% of Ballad employees are vaccinated along with 95% of affiliated physicians and stated that he was “proud” that number have chosen to vaccinate.

But that leaves a total of unvaccinated employees in the thousands.

“We will simply have to do the best we can do, and we will adjust accordingly as we strive to optimize our ability to serve our region,” he wrote.

Ballad in evaluation mode as it develops policy

The new rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was just released this morning. It mandates the vaccine for employees of hospitals, home health, long-term care and some other health care providers who receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement.

The rule is set to be published on the federal register tomorrow:

Unlike the rule mandating vaccinations for employers with more than 100 workers, the CMS rule does not allow for a person willing to undergo weekly COVID testing to keep their job even if unvaccinated. Levine wrote that it only allows exceptions for religious and medical reasons and said the system’s regional ethics committee will be called in to provide input into the policy.

“We will communicate our policy to you as soon as we have developed it,” Levine wrote.

He said the ruling will also have a peripheral impact and probably mean vaccination requirements for some people who work with the system but aren’t employed by it.

“The mandate is very far-reaching, and will impact our partner colleges and universities as well as vendors and others who have contact with our facilities,” he wrote.

Levine referred to his own Congressional testimony of two weeks ago, during which he “again expressed concerns about the impact a mandate could have.

Virginia Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith was also at that hearing and the Roanoke-area Republican released a statement of his own Thursday.

“Rural health care systems already have trouble recruiting and retaining workers,” Griffith wrote. “The vaccine mandate rolled out today by President Biden will only add to the burdens carried by hospitals in rural areas.”

“But this policy has now been implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and it is clear they intend to enforce it,” he continued. “I do want to be clear that our decision not to impose a mandate for COVID-19 vaccines did not place patients in jeopardy, as we do require universal precautions and the use of PPE.  With that in mind, this decision has been taken out of our hands.”

Levine wrote that Ballad will “work hard” to have a policy in place as soon as possible and thanked employees “for the incredible work that you do.”