Cody hospital vaccine mandate policy on hold

CODY — The West Park Hospital District board is taking a week to address some of the concerns raised by a series of impassioned speakers and board members before voting to approve a mandatory vaccine policy.

At a much more crowded than usual meeting Monday, board members Glenn Nielson, Ty Nelson, Jen Talich and Howard Thompson voted to table the vote until next Tuesday and in the meantime form an ad hoc committee to work through some of the issues. Dr. Lenox Baker and Peggy Rohrbach voted against tabling the vote.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a rule last week whereby all health care facilities receiving their funding would have until Dec. 5 to have all employees vaccinated with at least a first dose of an approved COVID vaccine. The policy allows for medical and religious exemptions.

“We are under their conditions of participation,” hospital CEO Doug McMillan said. “Medicare and Medicaid is 65 percent of our payer mix, 30 percent of reimbursement. Non-compliance would mean a loss of $30 million annually.”

The hospital generally ends the year with roughly $100 million in revenue.

“This is the worst,” Nelson said. “I’m completely against this, it’s complete overreach, but unfortunately we have a mandate, too, to provide this service and to follow the rules.”

What he and the other board members who voted to table decided following discussion and public comment was, essentially, to follow the rules just as much as required, not to go above and beyond, in order to give as many employees as possible a chance to claim an exemption.

Human Resources Officer Dick Smith said the process of the religious exemption indeed allows for just that. 

Requests will be considered by a committee that includes a medical doctor, one of the hospital’s chaplains, HR and the CRH employee health nurse, considering both medical and religious exemptions.

“It’s not possible for that committee to determine whether it’s a sincerely held belief or not; we can’t look into somebody's heart, soul or mind,” Smith said. “It’s an impossible task to determine sincere religious belief. If the application is consistent with the requirement of expressing a religious exemption to this vaccine, it’ll be approved. Bottom line.”

All seven who spoke at the meeting were either employees of the hospital or speaking on behalf of a friend or family member who works at the hospital. All spoke in opposition to the rule set down by CMS which the hospital used to make its mandatory vaccine policy. Most also spoke of how supportive the board and hospital leadership have been since the pandemic started, hoping that they would continue to support employees.

One speaker, RN Ken Lee, quoted scripture and expressed his hope God would be present in helping to determine the best course forward. Then he made a timely dad joke he had concocted just for the occasion.

“What do you call it when a male RN is fired for not getting a vaccine?” Ken Lee asked. “‘Murseless.’”

Those who spoke raised two main recommendations. The most common was asking to make the process of getting a religious exemption a “wide open” process and to do the minimum necessary to abide by the rule and thus allow any staff member who wanted to claim a religious exemption to do so without a vetting process as the policy proposed. 

“I think it would be wise if we could make those exemptions as wide open as possible. We should not go above and beyond in this respect, but do the bare minimum required by CMS to stay open,” Dr. Chris Rice said. “Make it easy for employees who do have serious concerns to be able to receive this exemption.”

The other recommendation made by some who spoke was to hold off on implementation of the policy until the courts could possibly make a ruling on a lawsuit brought by Wyoming and nine other states. A similar policy done through OSHA and affecting large businesses is already on hold after a court ruling.

“The 5th Circuit Court says this is an unconstitutional mandate, so hold on, let the courts do their job,” said Matt Herrin, who added that he has many friends working at the hospital and that in the past year hospital staff saved his son’s life. “We don’t want to lose anybody else. I don’t want to come here one night when I need help and not have anyone here to save me.”

Board members expressed support for adding to the policy a proviso that it would be put on hold if a court handed down an injunction to the ruling.