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Nearly 1,000 Southwest Virginia health care jobs at risk due to mandate | Business

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DAVID MCGEE Bristol Herald Courier

BRISTOL, Va. — Southwest Virginia’s Ballad Health System officials face the real possibility of having to terminate 1,000 employees next month if they fail to comply with a federal vaccine mandate, at the same time hospitals are filled with record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

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Last November, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a mandate that all hospitals receive funds from either federal insurance program must have all of its employees and associated personnel vaccinated against COVID-19 by a January deadline.

The matter was challenged in two federal courts, but the US Supreme Court allowed the mandate to stand as the cases continue.

“It is catastrophic. If there weren’t 800 people at home today and we had to fire 1,000 employees, that would be catastrophic,” Ballad CEO Alan Levine said in response to a question during a news briefing Thursday.

About 80% of Ballad inpatient revenue comes from the two federal insurance programs and Levine said the system has no choice but to comply with the federal mandate.

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Thursday was the deadline set by CMS for unvaccinated health care workers to receive their first injection, but Ballad declared Feb. 12 as its deadline, since the mandate was challenged in court.

“We did that so that everyone who wanted to seek an exemption could do so. We’re being very liberal with our approvals of those exemptions for both medical and religious reasons. As it stands today, we have just under 1,000 employees who have not taken the vaccine and who have not sought an exemption,” Levine said. “Obviously, we’re very concerned about that. … It seems quite illogical at a time when we’re having to put crisis staffing into place to then turn around and ask 1,000 people to leave. We’re going to do everything we can to encourage our team members to get vaccinated, recognizing this is a choice they have to make.”

Under the mandate, unvaccinated employees aren’t supposed to work.

“I can’t even imagine what it would look like to terminate 1,000 employees right now,” he said.

Given the record levels of hospitalizations due to the pandemic, the mandate with a basic tenant of the federal programs, he said.

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“One of the critical CMS standards for conditions of participation is hospitals provide safe levels of staffing for their patients. Now we have two conflicting provisions – one that says you have to have safe levels of staffing and another that says you have to fire people that aren’t vaccinated,” Levine said.

“Ballad is going to do whatever we need to do to protect the safety of our patients and make sure we are adequately staffed to care for the needs of those people. 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,” he said.

Ballad has and will continue communicating with employees, primarily through managers and other team members to encourage as many as possible to take the vaccine, Levine said.

The situation is more challenging, he said, given that less than half of the region’s residents are vaccinated, compared to about 60% of Ballad employees.

“We have provided enormous data underscoring the safety and efficacy of these vaccines. The problem is people get their information from so many sources now. I’ve always wondered some people would prioritize information they get from anonymous people on social media before their own employer or physician but that’s what we’re competing with,” he said.

Levine admitted that, technically, Ballad is currently out of compliance with the federal requirement by setting its deadline in February.

Some, he said, have asked why natural immunity didn’t count since they’d already had COVID, they didn’t have a religious opposition to vaccines in general but had concerns about this specific vaccine.

“They say to me, ‘I’m not going to hide behind my faith for something that isn’t true. I’m afraid. I’m not ready for it at this point.’ I respect that,” Levine said. “Unfortunately, the Medicare and Medicaid rules do not allow us any other provision. … I don’t believe CMS will be unreasonable in enforcement, but I do believe if they don’t see us actively trying to comply then the penalties could be pretty severe.”

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