The health care worker vaccine mandate is now on ice.
A federal judge on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction to stop the start of the national vaccine mandate for all providers covered by the Medicare and Medicaid Conditions of Participation (CoPs), a group that includes home health agencies. The move comes just one day after a federal court in Missouri said the health care worker vaccine mandate was “an unlawful promulgation of regulations,” halting its pending implementation in 10 largely rural states.
Announced by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Nov. 4, the vaccine mandate was set to kick in across the country next week. Health care workers had until early January to achieve fully vaccinated status.
Tuesday’s injunction — a temporary measure to maintain the status quo until the outcome of a case is decided — comes from Judge Terry A. Doughty of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. It responds to another legal suit filed by 14 states.
“There is no question that mandating a vaccine to 10.3 million health care workers is something that should be done by Congress, not a government agency,” Doughty wrote in the ruling. “It is not clear that even an act of Congress mandating a vaccine would be constitutional. Certainly, CMS does not have this authority by a general authorization [statute].”
CMS estimated that nearly 76,000 Medicare-Medicaid providers and 17 million health care workers would be impacted by its national vaccine standard.
On their end, home health providers have been largely supportive of vaccines, even launching efforts to encourage or reward clinicians to get vaccinated.
Additionally, many already operate in states or cities with self-imposed vaccination requirements. Many also partner or work with hospitals or nursing homes that have strict staff-vaccination policies.
Doughty suggested it’s important to uphold “the liberty of the unvaccinated” in the ruling.
“This matter will ultimately be decided by a higher court than this one,” the judge wrote. “However, it is important to preserve the status quo in this case.”
Technically, Tuesday’s injunction does not cover the 10 states where the vaccine mandate was already frozen.
Along with questioning the authority of CMS and Congress to enforce a vaccination mandate, Doughty voiced concerns about a nationwide standard hurting providers already dealing with dire staffing shortages. Workforce challenges were a main focus of the 14-state lawsuit.
“This is backed up by a number of declarations of various individuals that verify health care worker shortages, a significant number of health care workers that remain unvaccinated, and the harm that will be caused to these facilities in the event that even a few of the unvaccinated health care workers quit or are fired as a result of the CMS mandate,” Doughty wrote. “Some of the declarations also verify the huge percentage of money paid to these facilities through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, showing these facilities would have to shut down or severely cut back on health care services if funding is cut off by the government defendants to these facilities.”
It’s too early to say what will ultimately happen with a national vaccine mandate. But as a result of this week’s legal developments, it’s unlikely home health providers will face penalties if their workers aren’t vaccinated by the original CMS deadlines.