LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — Lake Regional Health System, the Lake of the Ozarks area's largest healthcare provider, informed employees last week that they'll have to be fully vaccinated with a Covid-19 vaccine by Jan. 4, 2022.
In a company-wide email sent on Nov. 4, outgoing Lake Regional CEO Dane Henry informed staff that a new rule from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services was essentially forcing Lake Regional to craft and enforce a Covid-19 vaccine policy. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) regulates all heath care facilities caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients.
The email from Henry as well as a follow-up email sent the next day are at the end of this article.
The new CMS rule came with promises of inspections for compliance and threats of enforcement against noncompliance. A press release from CMS reads, "CMS will ensure compliance with these requirements through established survey and enforcement processes. If a provider or supplier does not meet the requirements, it will be cited by a surveyor as being non-compliant and have an opportunity to return to compliance before additional actions occur. CMS’s goal is to bring health care providers into compliance. However, the Agency will not hesitate to use its full enforcement authority to protect the health and safety of patients."
The CMS press release noted the efficacy of vaccine mandates, pointing to an analysis that showed vaccination rates went up by 20% after mandates were put in place at some businesses, hospitals, non-profits, and government offices. The argument for the CMS's mandate was twofold. First, it argues unvaccinated healthcare staff pose a risk to patients. Second, it points out that when healthcare staff are unable to work due to exposure to or illness from Covid-19, it increases the strain on the healthcare system.
However, the CMS press release did not mention the CDC's acknowledgement that vaccinated people can become infected with Covid-19 and spread it while carrying the same viral load as unvaccinated people, nor did it specify that the increase in vaccination rates at hospitals and other organizations following a vaccine mandate is partly attributable to the firing or resignation of unvaccinated staff.
Lake Regional Health System currently employs approximately 1,500 people. It is unknown how many would be fired or resign as a result of the mandate. LakeExpo spoke with one Lake Regional nurse, who wished to remain anonymous. She said she would decline to receive the vaccine. "I’m hoping I won’t lose my job, but I’m not taking a vaccine that doesn’t work and I’m not taking something I feel is morally wrong!" she said.
Henry wrote a follow-up email to all staff on Nov. 5, in which he acknowledged there had been many questions about exemptions and what would happen if staff members refused to get the jab. He said attorneys were reviewing the law and CMS requirement, but he indicated rebellion by the Lake Regional against the new rule would pose an existential threat. "Noncompliance would put our entire organization, about 1,500 jobs, in jeopardy," he wrote.
In that email, he acknowledged there may be staff who would rather lose their jobs than get the vaccine: "Although our goal is to keep our team whole, I respectfully acknowledge that this may be a career-defining moment for several of you. As you consider your options, please know this: The Board and your leadership team deeply respects your individual freedom and the rights we hold sacred as Americans."
Henry noted in the Nov. 4 email that religious and medical exemptions would be allowed, but the specifics on those allowances are not currently known. He wrote, "More information will be shared with you soon, including the policy concerning medical and religious exemptions. Please understand, our guidelines for any exemptions must comply with the requirements put forth by CMS, OSHA and other applicable federal agencies. We will have limited choice or ability to locally interpret these policies."
A spokesperson for Lake Regional said more details on the vaccine rules are expected to be communicated to staff by the end of this week or early next week.
The two letters sent by Henry to all Lake Regional staff are below.
Thursday, November 4, 2021 2:30 PM
To all LRHS Employees,
Earlier today, the federal government officially issued the rule requiring staff in health care facilities nationwide to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This mandate applies to all facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, including Lake Regional Health System and its subsidiaries.
According to the rule, all staff must receive the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine or a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine before providing any care, treatment or other services by Sunday, Dec. 5. All staff must have received the necessary shots to be considered fully vaccinated – either two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson – by Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.
From the perspective of the government, this requirement is intended to protect health care workers and their patients. According to the CMS statement, “The prevalence of COVID-19, in particular the Delta variant, within health care settings increases the risk of unvaccinated staff contracting the virus and transmitting the virus to patients. When health care staff cannot work because of illness or exposure to COVID-19, the strain on the health care system becomes more severe and further limits patient access to safe and essential care.”
At Lake Regional, one thing that has been made very clear during this pandemic: Our community needs each and every one of you. Throughout the past two years, you have demonstrated commitment to each other, to our patients and to our community. We have truly been a Culture of One, and we have performed in an honorable and commendable manner. None have done better than us, and many have fared far worse. With each challenge over these last two years, you have done what’s necessary to protect your patients and each other. You have been brave while facing the unknown, and you have shown leadership in caring for this community. It is now time for us to take the next step in protecting our fellow employees and our patients from the ongoing pandemic. While we are hopeful the current waning in our region is a sign of the end of this pandemic, we have been here twice before and then seen significant, lethal resurgences.
Currently, our leadership team is working on how to establish convenient, frequent vaccination opportunities for those of you who need to begin this process. More information will be shared with you soon, including the policy concerning medical and religious exemptions. Please understand, our guidelines for any exemptions must comply with the requirements put forth by CMS, OSHA and other applicable federal agencies. We will have limited choice or ability to locally interpret these policies. Also, please understand this mandate applies equally to each and every healthcare provider or institution that receives funding from CMS; including all health systems, hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, private practices, nursing homes, etc. Make no mistake, the entire healthcare industry is subject to the same set of rules.
In the meantime, if you still have questions about the vaccine, please take this time to talk with your health care provider or your manager. More information will follow as soon as we learn more.
Dane W. Henry, FACHE
Chief Executive Officer
Friday, November 5, 2021 1:37 PM
As you can imagine, yesterday’s announcement has generated lots of discussion, and that’s a good thing. In fact, I welcome the questions and appreciate the professionalism you have used in your communications. This is a challenging topic for our organization, and I want to reassure you that your leadership team acknowledges there will be differences of opinion. Our community needs us, and we need each other to succeed. Therefore, respect for each team member will continue to guide our decision making as we move toward compliance with this mandate.
Most of the questions I have received relate to religious or medical exemptions and whether non-vaccination would be considered resignation or termination. We are currently reviewing the regulations with legal counsel to ensure our policy meets the federal standard. This is important work to ensure we comply with the law, which covers all heath care facilities caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients. Noncompliance would put our entire organization, about 1,500 jobs, in jeopardy.
I anticipate we will be able to share the new policy late next week. Although our goal is to keep our team whole, I respectfully acknowledge that this may be a career-defining moment for several of you. As you consider your options, please know this: The Board and your leadership team deeply respects your individual freedom and the rights we hold sacred as Americans.
More information will be shared when the policy is complete, and you will be given opportunities to ask questions at that time. In addition, we are working to offer convenient vaccination times for those who need to begin that process.
I sincerely thank you for all that you do for our patients and community.
Dane W. Henry, FACHE
Chief Executive Officer
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