Guest column: Tough decisions required in face of state and federal mandate |

Guest column: Tough decisions required in face of state and federal mandate

Jennifer Riley
Memorial Regional Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unimaginable toll on rural healthcare providers. More than ever, our community has relied on a tireless team of professionals who have been providing around the clock care to our patients. Our frontline providers didn’t get to work from home. For nearly 20 months they have been giving their all, oftentimes working long shifts and extra hours to care for high volumes of patients or to cover for other providers who are sick. The ever changing landscape of rules and regulations has been hard for every business to navigate; and just when we think we’ve turned a corner and things might return to somewhat normal, Memorial Regional Health is faced with a surge in new COVID cases and a state mandate that all healthcare workers be vaccinated.

On December 15, 2021, the State of Colorado reissued the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement for healthcare workers. MRH is required under these regulations to ensure that 100% of our employees and independent practitioners are vaccinated, unless an applicable medical or religious exemption is granted. Unvaccinated employees are ineligible for employment at any of our facilities effective January 5, 2022. This isn’t the way we had hoped to start 2022.

We know there are a lot of questions around the religious exemption process. MRH has complied with the new regulations by creating legally and ethically appropriate internal policies and procedures, which includes a thorough review of employee vaccination exemption requests. We know that no matter how we apply our policies and procedures, there will be some people who simply don’t agree with us. Our focus is to be consistent, objective and nondiscriminatory in our application of the policies. If we simply grant all exemption requests without proper scrutiny as some have suggested we might do, we would be in violation of the spirit and intent of the federal anti-discrimination laws as well as the vaccination regulations. This isn’t a risk we are willing to take.

Once exemption requests are submitted by employees, MRH assumes that there is a sincerely held religious belief of the individual, unless other objective factors are evidenced in the written submission to human resources. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines clearly support this individualized, personal internal decision-making process. The existence of such objective factors may therefore be evaluated and weighed in determining the Hospital’s decision on employee exemption requests. We know this all sounds like a lot of legal and government-type speak. It is. But we don’t make the rules, we’re just charged with following them and we’re navigating this as fairly and thoughtfully as possible.

We know it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the providers we rely upon most to provide necessary and oftentimes life-saving care in times of need are the same providers who are ineligible for employment within our healthcare system. We wish it was as easy as simply honoring an individual’s personal conviction. After all, “choice,” “ownership,” and “compassion” are all deeply held values at MRH. Honoring individuals is a value we take seriously.

The predicament that the state and federal governments have put us in is that a failure to comply with this mandatory requirement could result in our inability to continue to provide care. We don’t get to pick and choose which laws we comply with and our mission above all else is to provide world-class care to patients in need. We can only do that if our doors are open.

MRH employs roughly 360 people. We care for thousands of patients every year. We understand the implications of complying with the state vaccine mandate. The truth is, we waited as long as possible to enforce the vaccine mandate. We provided forums with doctors and other medical providers to answer employees’ questions about the vaccine myths and misinformation. We made available every approved vaccine option, including the fully-FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine.

In the end, we realize that getting a vaccine is an individual choice and that some of our most valued employees have chosen not to get a vaccine and our hands are tied. It’s not a decision we want to make. It’s a decision required by law that we have to make. Our employees are able to independently decide which course to choose.

I am deeply sympathetic to what is happening in healthcare. We are seeing many long-time healthcare workers leave the profession for a multitude of reasons, vaccines aside. I am concerned for the physical and mental health of all of our employees and remain optimistic that we, as a community, can rally around MRH and all of our providers — those who will remain and continue to provide outstanding care and those who are navigating a new future because they are choosing not to stay — with civility and empathy. While I know that what I say won’t always be what our community wants to hear, I promise that I will continue to be transparent, communicate often, tell the truth and provide as much information as our community wants and needs as we navigate a new year.

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