JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Even though they’ve put off by 15 days a federal deadline for employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or face termination, Ballad Health leaders are highly concerned as nearly 1,000 unvaccinated employees haven’t yet sought religious or medical exemptions.
“One of the key critical CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) standards for conditions of participation (in order to get paid by Medicare or Medicaid) is that hospitals provide safe levels of staffing for their patients,” Ballad CEO Alan Levine said at a Thursday news conference.
“Now you have two conflicting provisions of conditions of participation,” Levine said. “One that says you have to have safe levels of staffing and the other that says you have to fire people who aren’t vaccinated. Those two things conflict right now.”
Levine has made no bones about his concern regarding the health care worker COVID vaccine mandate that the Supreme Court recently upheld in a 5-4 vote. He stuck to his stance Thursday that it will cause great harm to non-urban systems where vaccine hesitancy is high — but said Ballad will comply with it.
Even though the federal deadline for employees to get a first shot is today, Levine said Ballad is making that deadline Feb. 11 for its employees.
“While the deadline is technically today, what we’re doing we did for the purpose of making sure everyone who wanted to seek an exemption could do so,” he said.
Levine said the system is “being very liberal with our approvals of those exemptions for both medical and religious reasons.”
Nonetheless, Ballad has “just under 1,000 employees who have not taken the vaccine and who have not sought an exemption.”
Levine said leaders are very concerned about that number and have made multiple overtures to CMS suggesting alterations to the mandate that would make it somewhat less onerous for systems like Ballad.
“It seems quite illogical at a time where we’re having to put crisis staffing in place to then turn around and ask 1,000 people to leave. That’s something we are loathe to do.”
He said leaders will continue doing everything they can to encourage unvaccinated staff members to get vaccinated, but that the CMS rules force upon Ballad a policy that mandates the vaccine as a condition of employment.
Levine said direct supervisors tend to be most influential and the system has been providing supervisors and managers with information about those of their staff who aren’t either vaccinated or have requested exemptions.
“We have provided enormous data and information underscoring the safety and efficacy of these vaccines,” Levine said. “The problem is, people get their information from so many sources now and I’ve always wondered why some people would prioritize information they get from anonymous people on social media before they would their own employer or physician but nevertheless that’s what we’re competing with.”
He said leaders and managers will “keep trying and leaning into it so that we can get them to that point.”
Levine, who said he “can’t even imagine what it would be like to terminate 1,000 employees right now,” said he listened to the Supreme Court arguments and believes some of the arguments made weren’t accurate. The appeals against the mandate will continue though it remains in effect through that process.
Levine said some staff who’ve had COVID wonder why CMS isn’t accepting prior infection as a legitimate reason to avoid vaccination.
“That’s a serious concern that they have but the CMS regulation does not make account for that.”
Levine also said numerous unvaccinated staffers have said they won’t “hide behind their faith” and seek religious exemptions because that’s not the actual basis for their hesitancy. He said those people tell him they’re just still afraid of the vaccine’s potential negative effects and aren’t ready.
“People really feel that way, and I respect that.”
Levine did predict that CMS would be reasonable in its enforcement of the mandate.
“But I do believe that if they don’t see us actively trying to comply, then the penalties could be pretty severe when you’re in violation of the conditions of participation.
“I don’t want to speculate about what will happen on February 12th but as the rule reads now, they’re not permitted to work once that deadline has come and gone.”
Regardless of how the court cases shake out or how many staff members Ballad might end up firing over refusal to get vaccinated, Levine said the system intends to try and thread the needle with patient care and safety top of mind.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do … to make sure that we are adequately staffed to care for the needs of the people in this region,” Levine said. “We will do everything we can to work with CMS as we try to comply with the vaccine mandate. We’re not going to put our patients at risk, and that is our position.”