Kansas signs onto Missouri-led lawsuit challenging federal vaccine mandate for health care workers

Jason Tidd Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas attorney general Derek Schmidt appears on monitors to speak on anticipated lawsuits and other responses regarding federal COVID-19 related mandates Friday at the Statehouse.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has signed onto a Missouri-led lawsuit challenging the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced the 10-state coalition Wednesday, which is challenging one of President Joe Biden's many COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

The lawsuit claims the requirement "imposes an unprecedented federal vaccine mandate on nearly every full-time employee, part-time employee, volunteer, and contractor working at a wide range of healthcare facilities receiving Medicaid or Medicaid funding."

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued the emergency regulation last week, which Biden had promised months ago. It mandates vaccination — with medical and religious exemptions — for staff at health care providers receiving CMS money.

More:Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announces lawsuit over large employer vaccine mandate

CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said the "action addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety."

"CMS knows that everyone working in health care wants to do what is best to keep their patients safe," the agency said in a statement. "Yet, unvaccinated staff pose both a direct and indirect threat to the very patients that they serve."

Schmidt has also signed onto a Georgia-led lawsuit against the mandate for federal contractors and a Kentucky-led lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement for large employers.

The 58-page lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the rule, among other claims.

It argues the federal government overstepped its bounds, noting that CMS has never previously required any vaccinations.

"The Plaintiff States are injured because the CMS vaccine mandate purports to preempt their state and local laws on matters of vaccines and the rights of their citizens," the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit also warns that the mandate "threatens to exacerbate an alarming shortage of healthcare workers, particularly in rural communities." Schmidt encouraged people to get vaccinated, but echoed those concerns in his statement on the lawsuit, suggesting that some facilities may "close due to an inability to hire sufficient staff."

"Kansas healthcare facilities and their employees are already facing hardships due to the stresses of the pandemic and the current labor shortage," he said.

In a statement, LeadingAge Kansas President and CEO Debra Harmon Zehr thanked Schmidt for challenging the CMS rule and said she hopes the lawsuit succeeds.

"While we believe vaccinations are important to curb the spread of COVID, broad sweeping federal mandates such as these cripple an already broken system that has experienced years of workforce shortages," Zehr said. "If the mandate is allowed to stand, we will see closures of stand-alone nursing homes, home health providers and other aging services resulting in fewer quality options for Kansas seniors to receive care."

CMS officials said in their announcement that "vaccination requirements have not led to widespread resignations in the health care workforce."

At Topeka's largest hospital, Stormont Vail Health imposed its own staff COVID-19 vaccination requirement with a deadline of Oct. 31, coinciding with the annual flu shot deadline. Officials said less than 1% of staff quit over the requirement.

More:Less than 1% of Stormont Vail's staff members voluntarily left because of COVID-19 vaccine deadline

At a state level, support for a special session to respond to federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates is quickly building in the Kansas Legislature. A panel of lawmakers approved a recommendation Tuesday that legislators be recalled to Topeka later this month to handle the issue.

Their purview would be focused on expanding religious exemptions to the shots and granting residents who are fired over the requirements unemployment benefits. Legislators noted the scope of their work could quickly expand, however.

Jason Tidd and Andrew Bahl are statehouse reporters for the Topeka Capital-Journal. They can be reached by email at jtidd@gannett.com and abahl@gannett.com.