Manchin gets commitment on vaccination flexibility for health care providers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The federal government is expected to provide West Virginia’s rural health care providers with flexibility regarding coronavirus vaccinations as facilities work to ensure employees are fully vaccinated.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced Thursday he received a commitment from Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, related to the vaccine guidance.

The rule requires employees to receive primary vaccine doses and applies to Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers like hospitals, public health centers and long-term care facilities.

The commitment from Brooks-LaSure came days before the Feb. 14 deadline for staff at West Virginia facilities to receive their first vaccine dose. The established deadline for employees to get their second dose is March 15.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (File)

“Administrator Brooks-LaSure told me that the goal of CMS is to help hospitals get their staff vaccinated, not kick them out of the Medicare program,” Manchin said. “She assured me that facilities will not be kicked out of the Medicare program if their entire staff isn’t fully vaccinated as long as facilities are making a good faith effort to vaccinate staff and implement best safety practices.”

Gov. Jim Justice and state officials have expressed concerns about how the requirement would impact staffing at relevant facilities. State Coronavirus InterAgency Task Force Director James Hoyer and other leaders spoke to White House officials earlier this month about securing a deadline extension.

“We’re more looking at the time of implementation of those requirements, to give us time to work through this latest surge and get off the peak,” Hoyer said on Feb. 3’s “MetroNews Talkline.”

Manchin cited a West Virginia Rural Health Association statistic in his statement. The organization reports the state’s rural hospitals have a vaccination rate of around 92%.

“I continue to encourage every West Virginian to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19,” the senator added. “At the same time, we must ensure our hospitals can remain open to provide critical care to our fellow West Virginians.”

West Virginia and 23 other states challenged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ authority to require coronavirus vaccinations. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in January in favor of the federal government; justices noted such mandate is within the Department of Health and Human Services’ authority.

“Of course the vaccine mandate goes further than what the Secretary has done in the past to implement infection control. But he has never had to address an infection problem of this scale and scope before,” justices said in an unsigned opinion. “In any event, there can be no doubt that addressing infection problems in Medicare and Medicaid facilities is what he does.”

Louisana Attorney General Jeff Landry is leading a second effort opposing the mandate. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and officials from 14 other states are part of the coalition.

Health care staff in states that did not oppose the rule faced a first shot deadline of Jan. 27. Employees in these states and territories must receive their second dose by Feb. 28.