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As Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republican leaders wage a war against vaccine warrants to curb COVID-19, a state Senate committee on Thursday proposed legislation that would make any entity, including hospitals, vulnerable to prosecution for discrimination if it made vaccination compulsory for all. employees.
The Senate State Affairs Committee 5-1 vote to move forward Senate Bill 51 overcomes objections from medical and business groups who opposed the legislation. They have warned lawmakers of its risks to small businesses, workplaces that depend on federal funding, and immunosuppressed Texans.
It was the second legislative hearing in as many days in which business groups and medical executives urged the legislature to let individual businesses decide whether they require employees to be vaccinated. Abbott asked lawmakers this week to address the issue to make sure Texans don’t have to be vaccinated, saying the vaccines are “safe, effective and our best defense against the virus, but should always remain voluntary. and never forced “.
Abbott, who faces re-election next year, has long been criticized by his left and right for the way he oversaw the state’s response to the deadly pandemic. Earlier this week, he banned private companies from requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, four weeks after Democratic President Joe Biden announced that federal contractors must vaccinate all employees against COVID -19 and that companies with more than 100 employees must mandate vaccination against the virus or require regular testing.
Abbott is also in several legal fights with cities, counties and school districts over local mask orders that defy his ban on such orders. Texas’ ban on masks in schools has sparked a federal investigation into possible violation of the rights of students with disabilities.
At Thursday’s Senate committee hearing, representatives from the American Cancer Society, Texas Medical Association and Texas Pediatric Association opposed SB 51 and called on lawmakers to exempt healthcare entities from health of the scope of the law.
Advocates for medical facilities like nursing homes fear losing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements if state law comes into effect, preventing them from following pending federal rules that will mandate vaccines.
“The state shouldn’t be forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on hospitals,” said Steve Wohleb, senior vice president and general counsel for the Texas Hospital Association. “This should leave those decisions to the hospitals, who are in the best position to know what is best for their patients.”
Josh Houston, advocacy director for interfaith group Texas Impact, spoke out against the bill, saying it was an example of state involvement in decisions that should be left to individual religious institutions.
“Our members sincerely believe that vaccines save human lives,” he said.
Annie Spilman, state director at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, spoke with other business representatives on concerns about the impacts of the bill on small businesses.
“We are not discussing the merits of vaccination, good or bad, here,” said Spilman. “You can fill in the blank on the subject – if that creates a cause of action, or any sort of adverse action against a small business employer that already operates with low margins, we will generally oppose it.”
A House bill that would expand exemptions employees could cite to avoid employers’ vaccine mandates on Wednesday was the subject of heated debate in the House State Affairs Committee – who adjourned without voting on Bill 155 by State Representative Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress.
The bill would allow Texans to withdraw from employer vaccination mandates for reasons of conscience, including religious belief, and for “acquired immunity” by previously contracting COVID-19. There is no definitive research on how long natural immunity lasts, and many scientists, doctors and infectious disease experts recommend that people who have contracted the virus still get vaccinated as long as 90 days have passed. their recovery.
HB 155 would also give employees the opportunity to take legal action against employers if they believe their employer is violating any of the exemptions.
Advocacy groups including the Texas Association of Business, the Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Assisted Living Association, opposed HB 155 during Wednesday’s hearing.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Texas Association of Business, said his group’s “big concern” was the legal action that could result from the bill.
Lee Parsley, general counsel at Texans for Lawsuit Reform, told lawmakers they had no way around federal rules issued by the Biden administration. As of Friday, companies that sign contracts with the federal government will have to vaccinate all their employees. Retirement homes and all Medicare and Medicaid certified The health care facility will also need to vaccinate all staff in order to continue participating in federal programs.
“I’m afraid you are against federal preemption,” Parsley told lawmakers on the House committee. “No matter what you pass, federal law is ahead of it.”
Wohleb, of the Texas Hospital Association, said the legislation could “be devastating. Hospitals rely heavily on Medicare and Medicaid funding. This would effectively shut down all hospitals if they could not comply with this particular requirement. “
Several people have testified in favor of HB 155, saying they believe the vaccination warrants are excessive and expressing concerns about potential side effects, although experts widely agree the vaccine is safe.
“I just think the confidentiality to protect your personal decision to take a vaccine or not to take a vaccine is your choice,” said Joanna McCurry, who began to speak out against the legislation but then changed her mind. .
Dawn Richardson, director of advocacy for the National Vaccine Information Center, testified against the bill but said she supported its concept. She said it was too late because many Texans have already been fired for not being vaccinated.
“There are so many companies, big companies that are taxing the vaccine,” she said.
After the House panel testified, Oliverson said he would change the enforcement mechanisms of the bill to protect small businesses from heavy penalties and lawsuits.
He also said he would work with the healthcare community to address how unvaccinated workers in hospitals could expose immunocompromised patients to the virus, but did not provide details on how he would resolve. this issue.
Kailyn Rhone contributed to this story.
Disclosure: The Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association, and the Texas Medical Association have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.