The House passed a bill on Tuesday that seeks to end the vaccine mandate for employees at some health facilities, marking the first pandemic-related bill the Republican majority has approved since taking control of the chamber.
The legislation, titled The Freedom for Health Care Workers Act, passed in a 227-203 vote, with seven Democrats joining Republicans in passing the bill.
The measure, introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), calls for stopping the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary from enforcing workplace regulations and standards enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic — including the vaccine mandate — at Medicare and Medicaid-certified facilities.
Under the rules, health workers at Medicare and Medicaid-certified facilities are required to have at least their first dose in a primary series of coronavirus vaccinations in order to provide care, treatment or services. Over 10 million health industry workers across roughly 76,000 facilities are subject to the vaccine requirements.
With Democrats maintaining control of the Senate and President Biden likely to veto the bill if it were to reach his desk, the vote on Tuesday was largely a symbolic gesture to record GOP opposition to the administration’s COVID policies.
The emergency standards were first issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2021 to minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus among healthcare workers and patients, and went into effect at the start of last year. The regulations were hotly contested in courts, with the Supreme Court ultimately ruling last year to uphold the requirements set for health workers while also overturning a similar requirement that was proposed for large employers.
Employees including doctors, technicians and nurses potentially face termination if they do not comply with the mandate, though some exceptions for religious and medical reasons are included in the requirements. If noncompliance occurs across an entire facility, then termination from Medicare and Medicaid programs could occur.
The implementation of the vaccine requirements set by the Biden administration received support from medical groups including the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association.
While these rules were issued in response to the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), they are not contingent on the PHE remaining in effect. The White House announced on Monday that the PHE is set to end on May 11.
As OSHA noted back in 2021, Medicare interim final rules such as the vaccine requirement expire three years after they are issued unless they are finalized.
“This is not an exception. The requirement is set to expire in November 2024 if CMS does not take additional action,” a spokesperson for the Centers or Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) said in a statement to The Hill.
House Democrats were quick to condemn the bill during the floor debate.
“The Freedom For Health Care Workers Act. Really? Freedom from what?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said on the floor. “The COVID-19 vaccine allowed our heroic nurses and health care workers to save lives and protect the most vulnerable, including senior citizens. but you know we are not done with it yet. People are still getting sick and dying.”
Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) blasted the proposed legislation as “cruel” and an “attack on public health.”
“Why would we endanger vulnerable populations? This is cruel and irrational,” said Garcia.
Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon (Ind.) spoke in favor of Duncan’s bill, while adding he was supportive of vaccinating healthcare workers.
“I just don’t think that CMS should be mandating it nationally,” Bucshon said.
Mychael Schnell contributed.
— Updated at 5:30 p.m.