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Arkansas lawmakers approve vaccine mandates for state-run healthcare facilities

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Arkansas Legislature
Arkansas Department of Human Services Secretary Cindy Gillespie responds to questions from members of the Arkansas Legislative Council in a meeting Friday.

Arkansas lawmakers have approved requests from some of the largest state-run healthcare providers to begin drafting COVID-19 vaccination policies for their workers.

Members of the Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday approved plans for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the state Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish vaccine requirements and exemption processes. This comes as the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, which facilities must comply with or lose federal funding.

Cindy Gillespie, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, told legislators the loss of funding from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would be disastrous for their facilities serving people with intellectual disabilities.

“Most everyone in a human development center is a Medicaid patient, so it would mean that they could no longer serve those patients, we could no longer pay for those centers. The ramifications are quite enormous,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie says her department would lose as much as $135 million in annual funding for not complying with the mandate, while UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said it would lose roughly $600 million. Col. Nate Todd, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said his department would stand to lose about $4 million in funding each year.

While the requests were ultimately approved, numerous lawmakers voiced their displeasure with the vaccine mandate. Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, argued state-run medical facilities shouldn’t be reliant on the federal government for funding.

"I think, pragmatically speaking, we all recognize that our state budget and our institutions are currently dependent on federal funding. I would encourage you to look for ways to break that dependence,” Payton said. “In the future, we don’t know what other rights or freedoms may be threatened through the strings attached to this funding.”

UAMS Chancellor Patterson responded to legislators’ concerns that a vaccine mandate could spur a mass resignation of healthcare workers.

“For many years, we have had other vaccine requirements for infectious diseases such as influenza. We allow our employees to file exemptions to those vaccines if they need them,” Patterson said. “I’m happy to say that I’m not aware of any employee resignations because of these requirements. That gives me hope that we can manage this just as well without loss of staff.”

Patterson says UAMS must have all employees fully vaccinated or exempted from the mandate by an April 14 deadline, after which they are subject to inspection by the federal government. He said about 400 employees have already requested exemptions from the upcoming mandate.

According to Patterson, roughly 2,000 UAMS workers have not yet been fully vaccinated. Employees exempted from the vaccine mandate will be required to wear face masks and to undergo weekly coronavirus testing.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.