Mandatory flu vaccines remain a sticking point in Indiana

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Should Indiana hospitals workers be required to get vaccinations for the flu and other contagious illnesses?

That question, which has raged here for years, will come up for discussion again on Oct. 18 before an Indiana General Assembly study committee.

The issue flared up nearly four years ago, go, when Indiana University Health fired eight employees, including three nurses, from its IU Health Goshen Hospital for refusing to get a flu vaccination.

IU Health said the mandate was meant to improve patient safety. Hospital patients often already have compromised health, and so many may be more vulnerable to the flu.

But some of the fired nurses said the mandate was unfair. They said it could conflict with their religious and medical beliefs.

Across Indiana, hospitals and health systems have various policies on such an employee mandate, and all are free to require workers to comply or lose their jobs

Some hospitals require all patient workers to get a flu vaccination every year. Others require workers who don’t get a flu vaccination to wear a mask during flu season. Others simply make recommendations.

Indiana has no comprehensive law on the subject. Earlier this year, some legislators took another stab at trying to address that.

Sen. Patricia Miller, a registered nurse, introduced a bill that would require hospital employees who have direct contact with patients to get vaccines for influenza—along with measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and meningococcal. The bill allowed for certain exceptions, including religious and medical grounds.

The Indiana Senate unanimously passed the bill, but ran into strong opposition in the House. Numerous people testified they had big concerns with such a mandate for a wide variety of reasons, from medical issues to philosophical concerns to bad personal experiences with flu vaccines.

Unable to reach an agreement between the two chambers, the General Assembly decided to send it to a health study committee for further review.

The chair of the study committee, Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, told IBJ she will take testimony and have a discussion. Beyond that, she’s not expecting the committee to make a big push for mandatory vaccines.

“It’s going to be my suggestion that we work on this a little bit more, work with hospitals and the public to see how we can come to an agreement, instead of having contentious discussions,” she said.

She added: “While it’s really important to everyone that we’re not putting patients in danger, we’re also hearing from folks that don’t want to get mandated to have these vaccines.”

The Centers for Disease Control’s position on flu vaccines is clear: “All persons aged 6 months and older are recommended for annual vaccination, with rare exception.”

It also recommends that all U.S. health care workers who come into contact with patients get vaccinated annually against the flu.

In Indiana, 87 percent of health care workers get the flu vaccination, slightly above the national rate of 84 percent.

The Indiana Hospital Association said it supports increased immunization for health care workers, and has adopted a resolution urging its members to try to achieve 100 percent compliance.

Brian Tabor, the association’s executive vice president, said Monday the organization supported Sen. Miller’s law, but had some concerns, including whether there would be too many exceptions.

“That could potentially have the perverse effect of weakening hospitals’ efforts to achieve the highest rates possible of immunizations,” Tabor said.

Another concern, he said, is that the law might not keep up with best practices for immunizations as recommended by the CDC and other regulatory bodies. The regulations need to be flexible as new clinical evidence emerges, he pointed out, yet the Indiana General Assembly meets in for only a few months a year.

“We agree with the sentiment that hospitals increase the highest possible rate of immunizations,” he said. “It’s just a question of how do you craft legislation to get you there without creating unintended consequences. And that could be difficult.”

The wide-ranging discussion continues Oct. 18. The study meeting will be held at 10 a.m. in the House chamber. No word on whether flu vaccinations will be available.

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