LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas lawmakers on Friday delayed a vote on whether to allow state-run health care facilities to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, a move officials say is needed to protect millions of dollars in federal funding.
The Arkansas Legislative Council voted to delay considering the requests by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), the Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs for an exemption from a state law banning vaccine requirements by government entities.
The law conflicts with a federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement for health care workers issued by President Joe Biden's administration that's set to take effect in January. A group of Republican-led states, including Arkansas, have asked a federal judge to block its enforcement.
UAMS could lose $600 million in Medicare and Medicaid funding and another $100 million in federal contracts if it doesn't comply with the federal rule, Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson told the panel. Patterson said the exemption was needed to ensure its workers are in compliance with the federal requirement and that funding isn't threatened.
"I hope that there is relief from the final rule, but as a steward of the resources of health care in the state of Arkansas, I have to be prepared for that worst case scenario," Patterson said.
The panel did not set a date for considering the exemptions. But legislative leaders said they hoped to meet before Dec. 5, the date employees would need to receive their first shot, if the federal requirement isn't blocked.
Opponents of allowing the exemptions said the facilities were moving too quickly and said they believed there's still a chance the federal mandate would be blocked. A federal court has blocked another requirement by the Biden administration that workers at companies with 100 or more employees get vaccinated or tested weekly.
"It feels like you're doing this because you want to do this, because you want to implement the vaccine, you want to fire people who aren't willing to get the vaccine," Republican Sen. Bob Ballinger told Patterson during the hearing. "If not, then pull it down, change your policy and wait until you have to do it."
The pushback over the facilities' requirements came weeks after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson effectively approved legislation allowing employees to opt out of vaccine requirements. Hutchinson allowed the measure to become law without his signature despite his concerns about the impact it will have on businesses in the state.
At the time, Hutchinson said the measure put businesses in the difficult position of choosing between whether to break federal or state law. Lawmakers raised similar concerns with the ban on vaccine requirements conflicting with the federal mandate.
"What you're asking us to do and what we're trying to decide for today is, do we play the game of chicken?" Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang said. "What happens when one side loses?"