January 18, 2022

Indiana vaccine exemption bill advances, faces GOP hurdles

House Majority Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, speaks during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Indianapolis.  - AP Photo/Darron Cummings

House Majority Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, speaks during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Indianapolis.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana House Republicans pushed through a proposal Tuesday that would severely limit workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements even as the move faces resistance from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP state Senate leaders.

The Republican-dominated Indiana House voted 57-35 largely along party lines in favor of the bill, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

Supporters maintain the bill would protect individual rights by forcing employers to grant exemptions to workers who claim medical or religious objections and limit them to requiring COVID-19 tests no more than once a week. It also requires businesses to accept as a vaccine exemption a worker’s medical test results showing some level of immunity through a previous infection and makes anyone fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination eligible for unemployment benefits.

Major business organizations argued against the proposed vaccination exemptions, which employers would have to accept from workers “without further inquiry.”

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne said workers shouldn’t lose their jobs over not being willing to get the COVID-19 vaccination.

I am vaccinated, I would encourage you to get vaccinated,” said Lehman, the bill’s sponsor. “But this isn’t about the effectiveness of the vaccine or the ineffectiveness of the vaccine. This is about the right of the individual, as an employee, what their rights are.”

The vote comes after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to block the Biden administration’s attempt to require COVID-19 vaccinations or testing for workers at big companies. The court, however, let stand a federal vaccination requirement for most health-care workers, so Indiana hospital systems, such as Indiana University Health and Accension St. Vincent, with vaccine mandates wouldn’t be effected by the proposed state law.

Holcomb and top Senate leaders have opposed the bill as wrongly interfering in the decisions of private businesses. The Senate is advancing a bill limited to administrative steps Holcomb says are needed to end his statewide COVID-19 public health emergency by allowing the state to keep receiving enhanced federal funding for Medicaid and food assistance programs.

Those steps are included in the House bill, but House Republicans have pushed the vaccination mandate limits in response to conservative grievances over government-ordered virus precautions.

Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis criticized the House proposal as doing nothing to improve the state’s low vaccination rate and only encouraging those who don’t want to get the shots.

“Liars and hypocrites and chickens can sign a piece of paper saying they have a religious exemption and the employer must accept it,” DeLaney said.

The fast-spreading omicron variant has pushed Indiana’s number of confirmed COVID-19 infections to an average of nearly 14,000 a day, according to state health department tracking. That is the highest level during the pandemic as Indiana’s hospitals were treating almost 3,400 COVID-19 patients as of Monday — a number that is up about 190% from two months ago and the highest since mid-December 2020 before the vaccines were widely available.

The state has averaged more than 50 such deaths a day since mid-December, and the pandemic death total has reached almost 20,400.

Indiana’s vaccination rate has stagnated for months despite pleas from Holcomb and medical groups for more people to get the shots. Indiana has the country’s ninth lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 52.6%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Seven Republican House members joined Democrats in voting against the bill, with some of them arguing that it didn’t go far enough by not seeking an outright ban on workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

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