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Legislative Council defers requests for exemptions from state anti-vaccine law

The Arkansas Legislative Council devoted several hours today to hearing from UAMS, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs requests for exemptions from the state law that prevents them from requiring vaccinations of their employees.

The Council wasn’t inclined to grant the exemptions, but decided to delay a vote on the exemptions, which are allowed for state health agencies of the law barring vaccination mandates, until an expected court ruling Nov. 29 on a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the Biden administration rule that continued Medicare and Medicaid funding would be dependent on compliance with the rule.

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Most questions concerned the minority who’ve refused vaccinations (about 20 percent at UAMS and about a third of state health facility workers, such as the human development centers, and about 19 Veterans Affairs employees at its nursing homes) and whether they should be granted blanket exemptions for claiming a religious reason not to get a shot.

Many legislators seemed to favor mass resistance. Would the administration really stop federal funding? Would it really force agencies that serve thousands of sick and disabled people out on the street?

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Legislators insisted that UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson and DHS Secretary Cindy Gillespie call the “bluff” of the Biden administration by writing them about state laws, though Patterson said it would likely be fruitless.

Few religious exemptions have been claimed so far. And federal guidelines tend to make clear that each must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Simply invoking  “religion” can’t justify an exemption for a front-line medical care worker, though some legislators seemed to feel that it should.

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Time is an issue. Employees who haven’t received shots must start the process by early December to meet the early January deadline for being vaccinated set by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This, legislators were told, was why notice began earlier this week on the need for vaccinations. The risk of losing the federal money is too great not to begin the process, they said.

Several thousand UAMS and DHS workers haven’t been vaccinated.

I could repeat the legislative posturing this morning. Sen. Alan Clark suggested rolling on Wilmington, Del., the president’s hometown for example, but it’s been said before.

An outlier in the discussion was Sen. Linda Chesterfield, who said her concern was that the state would do “everything we could do to protect” the elderly and disabled people in state care. In other words, get the shot.

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Publicity-hound Sen. Missy Irvin popped up with a political stunt — a resolution backing the state’s legal fight against the rule to protect sick people from health care workers who refuse to be vaccinated. It was approved.

UPDATE: Later in the meeting, Adjutant General Kendall Penn, in response to a question, said 345 of some 7,700 National Guard members had refused secretary of Defense orders to get vaccinated.