While politicians across Arizona either celebrated or condemned Thursday’s 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to enforce a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, a number of healthcare workers are pondering their options.
The SCOTUS decision permits a Feb. 22 deadline for healthcare workers at CMS-regulated facilities and employees of suppliers covered by CMS regulations to be fully vaccinated unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption. Among the many unvaccinated healthcare workers are high-demand nurses, technicians, and other professionals across Arizona.
A number of healthcare facilities fired non-vaccinated employees during the last quarter of 2021, although in recent weeks those facilities , primarily hospitals, have delayed terminations due to growing staffing problems. Hospital administrators will no longer have that option is CMS sticks with the Fen. 22 deadline.
Several Tucson Medical Center employees used the SCOTUS decision to draw attention to how administrators have mishandled those staffing issues.
“They call us HEROES but treat us like ZEROES” one of the signs read. Another sign clarified that a report of an intensive care unit being “out of beds” actually means there is a lack of nurses, not furniture.
Other healthcare workers who have been working for companies without COVID-19 vaccine mandates are now having to decide what to do, as more than 95 percent of healthcare facilities receive some form of Medicare or Medicaid payments.
Legal experts point out the SCOTUS decision was in response to a request for a stay -or court ordered pause- of the CMS mandate until the case can be fully litigated. However, the majority of justices ruled the CMS mandate was properly implemented as a necessary measure to protect patient health and safety.
If the case is further litigated, it is possible some new circumstance could swing a justice against the vaccination mandate, but the chances are slim, several attorneys told Arizona Daily Independent.
Sean Marotta, outside counsel for the American Hospital Association, blogged after the SCOTUS decision that the justices “understood that the long history of CMS infection-control regulations made the vaccine mandate an incremental step, not a sweeping new assertion of authority.”
And as a result of the ruling, “expect CMS to finalize the vaccine mandate in essentially the same form as the interim final rule,” Marotta noted.
Meanwhile, Arizona Daily Independent has confirmed that a patient at a hospital in Tucson recently became combative and ripped off the protective mask from the face of a healthcare professional. The patient proceeded to purposely cough in the face of the employee, who is vaccinated.
That employee has now tested positive but has been told by a hospital official that it is okay to return to work.
Several hospitals across Arizona are providing similar directions to workers due to staffing shortages brought on by terminations as well as voluntary departure of healthcare professionals who could not or would not be vaccinated and were denied exemptions.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for those Arizonans subject to the CMS mandate who have been unable to obtain a religious exemption.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is investigating at least one complaint about potential discrimination in how religious exemptions are being decided. If healthcare facilities are imposing too stringent of a review process as some medical professionals allege, then the attorney general’s office could step in.