How Florida hospitals are juggling plans over COVID-19 vaccination mandates

Amid a COVID-19 surge fueled by the omicron variant, hospitals and health systems in Florida must navigate conflicting positions at federal and state levels when it comes to vaccination mandates.

On Jan. 13, the Supreme Court upheld the CMS mandate for COVID-19 vaccination in healthcare facilities, setting aside challenges that blocked enforcement of the mandate in 24 states. This means CMS may implement and enforce the rule in every state but Texas, where a preliminary injunction remains in place. The rule requires healthcare facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs to establish a policy ensuring eligible workers are fully vaccinated, with exemptions allowed based on religious beliefs or recognized medical conditions. 

On the same day of the Supreme Court decision, the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will not enforce the federal mandate. Mr. DeSantis also signed a law Nov. 18 designed to counter mandates. The Florida legislation prohibits vaccination mandates for private employers unless also providing various exemptions, which include medical or religious concerns; pregnancy or anticipated future pregnancy; and past COVID-19 infection. The legislation also imposes a fine of up to $50,000 per employee violation.

A spokesperson for Mr. DeSantis said the state's prohibition on vaccine mandates "remains in effect for all industries, [and] we will be evaluating next steps for enforcement in the coming days," according to a statement shared with ABC affiliate WFTS.  

Meanwhile, Florida hospitals must navigate conflicting state and federal positions.

Mary Mayhew, Florida Hospital Association president and CEO, told NPR hospitals "don't want to be caught between the state government and the federal government," and they are working on addressing the situation.

"You can't be in compliance with both based upon the breadth of exemptions that exist within the state law," she said. "So, hospitals are working very closely with their staff, first of all, to encourage them to get vaccinated, but then to identify where there are exemptions that fit within the Medicare rule. Where we become potentially at odds with the state requirement is if an employee fails to fit."

Hospitals and health systems in Florida told Becker's via written statements Jan. 18 and 19 that they are working on compliance.

Orlando Health said the health system "continues to review the guidelines regarding COVID-19 vaccination requirements for healthcare organizations and will take appropriate steps. As a healthcare organization, we continue to strongly encourage vaccinations for all team members and physicians at Orlando Health."

Altamonte Springs-based AdventHealth emphasized the health system's support of vaccines.

"As part of our commitment to protecting the health and well-being of our team members, patients and communities, we strongly encourage all of our team members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," the health system's statement said.

As of Jan. 18, about 96 percent of AdventHealth employees were in compliance with the CMS vaccination mandate.

The health system plans to "be in compliance with the legal requirements and continue to monitor developments impacting its enforcement," according to the organization's statement.

Jacksonville-based Baptist Health said the organization also continues to keep tabs on the evolving law and regulatory guidance regarding vaccination requirements.

As of Jan. 19, more than 99 percent of Baptist Health employees had met the COVID-19 vaccination or exemption requirement.

Additionally, "we recently extended the date for compliance by 30 days to allow time for our team members to submit exemptions utilizing the new state of Florida approved exemption forms, which we are currently honoring," the health system said.

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