Federal vaccination mandate necessary despite staffing challenges, CMS administrator says

CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure is explaining the reasoning behind a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers amid concerns of understaffing at hospitals and nursing homes, particularly in rural areas.

She told NPR the decision to mandate the vaccine was well thought out, and stagnation of inoculation rates in healthcare facilities played a key role in the mandate decision. 

"We did not undertake this decision lightly," she said in an interview the media organization published Sept. 25.

The federal government is requiring more than 17 million healthcare workers at Medicare- and Medicaid-participating hospitals and other healthcare settings. The requirement, which applies to hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings and home health agencies, expands on the CMS announcement Aug. 18 that nursing homes must have staff vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for receiving federal funds. CMS said it is developing a mandate-related interim final rule with a comment period that will be issued in October.

But rural hospitals have expressed concerns that the mandate could exacerbate workforce shortages as many employees are refusing to get vaccinated. Some healthcare organizations have already seen staff resign because of vaccine mandates, including Lowville, N.Y.-based Lewis County Health System, which announced in September that it would temporarily close its maternity unit because of employee resignations. 

In her interview with NPR, Ms. Brooks-LaSure acknowledged hospitals' concerns about potential staffing shortages but said unvaccinated healthcare workers who become sick or must quarantine also cause these shortages. 

She also told the media organization staffing issues at healthcare facilities may not be as severe as some worry about. She specifically cited Maine, where two health systems have seen few employees quit because of the state's vaccine mandate. 

As of Sept. 23, 66 employees had left Brewer, Maine-based Northern Light Health because of the vaccine requirement, according to system spokesperson Karen Cashman. That's out of about 12,500 employees across the system. 

At Portland-based MaineHealth, 58 of the system's 23,000 staff members had resigned as of Sept. 23 and cited the vaccination requirement as among the reasons for their decision, system spokesperson Caroline Cornish told Becker's. That represents only 0.0025 percent of the system's workforce.

"Even though there was a lot of noise around what these mandates mean, the actual number of healthcare workers who quit was very limited," Ms. Brooks-LaSure told NPR.

Still, Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said in rural areas where there are not high numbers of available, qualified healthcare workers to fill vacant jobs, even a 2 percent to 5 percent staff reduction is going to cause service disruption, according to NPR.

He is calling on the federal government to ensure there is a plan to address staff shortages. 

Read the full NPR report here

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