Arkansas panel OKs agencies enforcing vaccine requirement

January 28, 2022 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Friday cleared the way for state-run health care facilities to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine after officials warned that blocking the move would jeopardize more than $700 million in federal funding.

The Arkansas Legislative Council effectively approved the request by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs to comply with the federal vaccine requirement.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month allowed the federal vaccine requirement for health workers to move forward, the same day it blocked another rule that would have required workers at big companies to get vaccinated or face regular COVID testing requirements.

Health care facilities that don’t comply with the rule could face the loss of their Medicaid funding, which would amount to more than $600 million for UAMS, Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson told the panel.

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“There’s no model I can conceive of by which UAMS could continue to operate clinical services absent (Medicaid) money,” Patterson told the panel. Not moving forward with the requirement would risk $100 million in funding for Human Services’ health facilities and at least $4 million for the state’s veterans facilities, officials said.

DHS Secretary Cindy Gillespie said the Medicaid funds are the primary source of money for the state’s human development centers, which serve the developmentally disabled.

“The ramifications are quite enormous in the sense of losing the funding for the centers,” she said.

The requirement conflicts with an Arkansas law banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates by government entities. But that law allows the state-run medical facilities to request exemptions from the council, the Legislature’s main governing body when lawmakers aren’t in session.

The chairman of the panel declared the requests reviewed without any members voting to block the move. The council in November delayed taking up the agencies’ requests after lawmakers said they wanted to see how the courts would rule.

Lawmakers sought assurances from Patterson, Gillespie and Veterans Affairs Secretary Nate Todd that they would interpret the religious and medical exemptions allowed under the federal rule broadly.

The requests won approval despite some lawmakers’ complaints about the threat of funding loss.

“You’re asking us more or less to give up our constituents’ First Amendment rights in return for a dollar amount to guarantee the programs that serve them,” Republican Sen. Mark Johnson said.

Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent, warned that blocking the requirement would have significant consequences.

“We’re talking roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars that we’re encouraging you all to play chicken with the feds basically if we refuse to comply,” Hendren said.

The council also approved spending $4.7 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to open 27 additional hospital beds for COVID-19 patients at UAMS. The request came as the state has seen COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks reach record levels, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus.

The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations on Friday decreased by 68 to 1,720. The state reported 5,660 new virus cases and 20 new COVID-19 deaths. The true number of cases, though, is likely higher due to the number of people testing at home or who are infected but haven’t been tested.

Also Friday, Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge appealed a Pulaski County judge’s ruling striking down the state’s law banning schools and other government agencies from mandating masks. Circuit Judge Tim Fox last month found the law unconstitutional on multiple grounds.