Intermountain Healthcare will require its caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19

Intermountain Healthcare has announced it will require “all of its caregivers” to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to comply with pending federal rules.

Federal officials are moving forward on vaccine requirements for large employers — and previously have said government insurers like Medicare and Medicaid will only cover services from health care providers whose employees all are vaccinated.

That would eliminate coverage for about four in every 10 of Intermountain’s patients, if the network did not require vaccines, said Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive for Intermountain.

“After reviewing the rules that we have received, it really became clear that we need to comply with these rules because this is about caring for people,” Briesacher said in a news conference Wednesday. “We care for people who have Medicare insurance, Medicaid insurance, other forms of federal health insurance. We have connections to a variety of federal contracts.”

About 80% of Intermountain’s care providers already are fully vaccinated, according to a news statement Wednesday.

That means about one in five are not.

Those employees may seek exemptions on medical or religious grounds, Briesacher said — a process that’s already in place for an array of other vaccinations that Intermountain requires employees to have, like those for the flu, whooping cough, measles, and other illnesses.

“We’re going to work through those very thoughtfully, very carefully, in a generous way … to honor those exemptions,” Briesacher said.

Employees have until Jan. 5 to get their first shot of a vaccine. Those who haven’t at that point will be put on “administrative leave,” Briesacher said.

“We will … continue that thoughtful conversation to understand what their needs are, what their questions are and get those answered,” Briesacher said.

If employees remain unvaccinated and do not have an exemption as of Feb. 9 “we’ll then begin to move to separate them from the organization,” Briesacher said. “We’ll do that in a very caring and thoughtful and supportive way, helping them land in a place that’s right for them and best for them.

Briesacher said he doesn’t “have a specific number in mind” of how many employees may quit or wait to be fired rather than get the vaccine.

“We’ve seen varying experiences across the United States when different health systems have gone through this,” Briesacher said.

While some hospitals have struggled to retain staff after imposing vaccine requirements, surveys of health care workers have generally overstated their actual willingness to quit. That’s according to research in The Conversation, a nonprofit news publication that conducts and covers academic research. In a sample of health care employers that had implemented vaccine requirements, researchers found a vanishingly small percentage of employees actually left their jobs.

It’s not clear where else Intermountain employees would seek employment; the state’s second-largest healthcare system, University of Utah Health, already has required employees to be vaccinated. And all other healthcare providers in the United States fall under under the same federal rules that have prompted Intermountain to require vaccines.

It’s also not clear why Intermountain did not previously require the COVID-19 vaccine, even though it requires employees to be immunized against a number of other diseases.

Briesacher said only that “every health care organization across the United States has faced this question, and they all have a unique set of circumstances that are specific to them.”

Intermountain leaders “have been carefully stepping through this as we’ve deliberated all the information, the information about the vaccines, its effect, their effectiveness, what does the schedule look like? And now, of course, the new variable being the the federal requirements that have been announced,” he added.

“So I would submit that organizations have made decisions that are right for those that they serve and for that for their organizations and the communities they serve on an individual basis.”

But he would not say which circumstances or information weighed against Intermountain requiring the vaccine before federal rules were announced.

Intermountain representatives did not immediately know how many employees have received exemptions from its existing vaccine requirements.

Intermountain has more than 41,000 employees and is Utah’s largest health care provider.

President Joe Biden in September announced an array of pending federal vaccination requirements, both for health care providers and for other large employers.

The Utah Legislature has resisted other COVID-19 mandates, including prohibiting a statewide mask mandate. On Wednesday, Utah Speaker Brad Wilson said there is little state lawmakers can do about the federal policy and Intermountain’s new mandate.

“I understand why they’re doing it (implementing the mandate) and I have empathy for them,” WIlson said. “The federal government has put them in a really tough spot. Because of the federal funding they’re receiving, we (the Legislature) can’t intervene in that space very effectively.”

Intermountain is “doing what the federal government allows, which is providing a medical and religious exemption for their employees,” he added. “I think they’re trying to manage as best as they can. They’re a pretty important part of our health care system in the state.”

— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.

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