Lawmakers reject carving out health providers

In this file photo, Kristina McClellan, a registered nurse, left, gets her face shield disinfected by Cece Bellot, a registered nurse, right, during the COVID-19 drive-thru testing at the Florida Department of Health Marion County in Ocala on June 29 of last year. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Florida lawmakers sped Tuesday toward passing a plan to prevent COVID-19 vaccination requirements and rejected an attempt to exclude hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers from the measure.

The House, during the second day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Ron DeSantis, took up the plan and is poised to pass it Wednesday. The plan also cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee, preparing it to go to the full Senate on Wednesday.

The House and Senate are considering identical bills (HB 1B and SB 2-B) to prevent vaccination requirements, with Republicans rejecting Democratic attempts to make changes. That included the House on Tuesday rejecting a proposed amendment to carve out hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers that take part in the Medicaid and Medicare programs.

The state plan conflicts with a rule issued this month by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that seeks to require health-care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. If health-care providers do not comply with federal rule, they would face financial penalties.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said health-care providers have asked to be excluded from the state plan because of fears that they could lose federal funding. He said they should not be put in an “impossible position for the sake of politics as usual in Tallahassee.”

“This bill creates a tug of war between the state and the federal government, with our health-care providers being the rope that is being pulled back and forth,” said Smith, who proposed the amendment.

But the Republican-dominated House rejected Smith’s proposal in a 78-40 vote. Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill, expressed confidence that the federal rule will be blocked in legal challenges.

“At that time, we believe that this (state) legislation will be the rule of law in Florida, and it will be clear for private employers and Medicaid and Medicare recipients that they must comply with our law,” Grall said.

DeSantis called the special session, at least in part, to push back against the Biden administration on vaccination mandates.

Lawmakers are expected to pass four measures during the session, including one (HB 5B and SB 6-B) that could lead to the state regulating worker safety and moving away from oversight by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That proposal came after OSHA issued a rule this month that would require tens of millions of workers nationwide to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested and wear masks. Florida is challenging the rule in federal court.

The main legislation of the session is designed to prevent worker vaccination requirements. Under the proposal, private-sector workers could avoid vaccination requirements if they provide medical reasons, religious reasons or can demonstrate “COVID-19 immunity.” Also, they could be exempt if they agree to regular COVID-19 testing or agree to wear personal protective equipment.

The legislation also would bar government agencies from requiring workers to be vaccinated.

But the state plan clashes with the federal health-care provider rule, which calls for workers to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. The federal rule includes vaccination exemptions for medical and religious reasons under laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act. But those exemptions are significantly narrower than what is included in the state plan.

Steve Bahmer, president and CEO of the long-term care industry group LeadingAge Florida, issued a statement Friday that said the state plan could make it impossible for providers to comply with both the state and federal directives.

“Nursing homes must comply with the federal rule because the federal law trumps state law,” Bahmer said. “The loss of Medicaid and Medicare funding would be devastating to providers and could ultimately displace Florida’s most frail elders.”

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