Hospitals Among Tennessee Entities Banned from Asking Workers for COVID Vaccine Proof

Hospitals are among Tennessee entities banned from asking workers for proof of COVID vaccination, the Tennessee Hospital Association said.

State Comptroller Jason Mumpower announced a reversal of a number of exemptions that allowed entities to employ COVID measures against a state law that restricted them. Court rulings that also blocked a few of President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates were cited, the Associated Press reported.

The state law does allow for health care organizations to require proof of vaccination, but only for "valid and enforceable" Medicare and Medicaid rules. The hospital association said that one of the court rulings "effectively eliminates" the exemption for hospitals.

Two recent court rulings applied to federal contractors, while the other applied to some Medicaid and Medicare health care providers.

There have been 69 exemptions approved since the state began granting them in mid-November. The reversal of some may cause entities to file lawsuits against the state.

Groups that could prove they lose federal funding through compliance with the state law received exemptions. This conflicts with policies the Biden administration enforced. However, Mumpower said his office "can no longer find that compliance" with the state law "would result in a loss of federal funding" because of the latest court rulings against the mandates Biden implemented.

"It is important to note that these exemptions may be reinstated if the injunctions are lifted, and it is legally permissible," the comptroller's office said.

The injunction in question was issued by U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Tuesday, which blocks the vaccine mandate in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, according to AP.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tennessee hospitals, Vaccination Proof, Exemption Reversals
Tennessee hospitals had an exemption that allowed them to require proof of COVID vaccination if under a "valid and enforceable" Medicaid or Medicare rule in the state law, but a court ruling "effectively eliminates" it, the Tennessee Hospital Association said. In this photo, Dr. Thomas Yadegar, medical director of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), walks out of the Cardiovascular ICU at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California, on September 2, 2021. Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images

The comptroller's office also cited a federal preliminary injunction against the health care workers' vaccine requirement issued by a judge in the Western District of Louisiana, who noted the scope would be nationwide. A similar decision came from a federal judge in Missouri this week.

The move drew praise from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who tweeted that the comptroller was "protecting Tennesseans' rights."

Under the new state law, Tennessee now largely bars governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and only lets schools and other public entities require masks in rare, dire public health situations, with limited exceptions.

Infractions are punishable through lawsuits, which people can file to recover compensatory damages and reasonable attorney fees if they think an "adverse action" was taken against them under a mask or vaccine requirement. That can range from "denying the person employment, privileges, credit, insurance, access, products, services, or other benefits," to affecting the "compensation, terms, conditions, locations, rights, immunities, promotions, or privileges" of an employee.

The new avenue to sue was a main driver of opposition to the law from two influential business groups: the National Federation of Independent Business of Tennessee and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Some big companies with COVID-19 vaccine requirements had received exemptions in Tennessee. AT&T announced in September that 90,000 employees in the Communications Workers of America union would be required to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1, "unless they get an approved job accommodation."

Citing the court action, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced late Tuesday that it had "paused our efforts to require proof of vaccination from all employees," said Senior Vice President Dalya Qualls.

"At the same time, we know COVID-19 is not going away and so we're still encouraging vaccination as the best way for our employees to protect themselves and their loved ones," Qualls said in a statement.

Among the large universities that had succeeded in landing exemptions to the law were Vanderbilt, the University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee system.

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd told employees Wednesday that a mask requirement would be lifted immediately and vaccine requirements under the federal mandate would be lifted while the legal process continues, saying the moves are meant to comply with the state law.

"As new strains of COVID-19 continue to appear, I strongly urge all UT employees who have not been vaccinated to once again consider getting vaccinated," Boyd wrote.

UT-Battelle, the private nonprofit that runs Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was still evaluating the impact of the court order and the comptroller's notice alongside the U.S. Department of Energy, said UT-Battelle spokesperson Morgan McCorkle. McCorkle said the organization can keep requiring masks.

As a federal contractor, UT-Battelle has been locked in a court fight over implementation of its vaccine mandate.