INDIANAPOLIS – Support was slim for a proposal heard by lawmakers Tuesday that would clear the way for the end of the public health emergency and restrict employer vaccine mandates.
Medical professionals opposed the measure being pushed by Republicans in an accelerated process that would suspend rules and pass a law in a day. And many conservative voices in the room spoke against the language because it didn't go far enough.
The joint House and Senate Rules Committees heard six hours of testimony on language that was made public Saturday. A vote by the full House and Senate is set for Monday. The GOP-led chambers need two-thirds of the votes to approve the bill in an expedited manner.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said the Legislature needs to act now rather than waiting until January when lawmakers would return for their usual session.
“All the people from Ascension you heard testify today won't have a job. That's why it's very important to do this as quickly as we can,” he said.
About 10 employees of Ascension testified about getting suspended from Indiana health care jobs after being denied religious exemptions sought from a vaccine mandate. But pending federal rules could also overrule any protections Indiana lawmakers provide.
The primary purpose of the language being considered is a way to end the public health emergency called by Gov. Eric Holcomb by putting three administrative changes into law that would still allow the state to collect millions in additional federal dollars and provide vaccine clinics. The governor's current emergency order expires Dec. 1. Without the three changes, Holcomb would likely extend it.
But Republican leadership in the House and Senate also inserted provisions that would severely restrict vaccine mandates by Indiana businesses as well as schools and universities.
Many people testified against the mandates that are the result of federal rules from President Joe Biden that are under judicial review. But the language Indiana lawmakers are considering would have no impact on those. If the federal rules are upheld, they would supersede anything the state does.
Instead, legislators are hoping to protect workers from private Indiana businesses that have made their own choice to mandate vaccines.
Several doctors and groups opposed the proposal, saying the COVID-19 vaccine has been proven safe and effective.
Dr. Stephen Tharp – representing the Indiana State Medical Association – said the bill will prolong the pandemic and harm the economy, health care system and society further. He said the state needs to promote vaccinations as a way to end the pandemic not pass language that makes it easier to opt out of a vaccine mandate.
Tharp specifically spoke against a provision that would require an exemption be granted to anyone who is pregnant or anticipating a pregnancy.
“The language is dangerously inconsistent with the science,” he said while noting that COVID-19 is booming and now is not the time to end the emergency.
Dr. Caroline Rouse, a central Indiana obstetrician-gynecologist, says including pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy for an exemption from the vaccine is medically unsound and goes against federal guidance.
She said a pregnant woman with COVID-19 is 22 times more likely to die than a pregnant woman who doesn't have the virus, and called the bill an example of misinformation.
Many who spoke supported freedom for medical decisions and individual rights.
Kristi Grabowski of Anderson said her husband is seeking a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate but in the meantime is being discriminated against by being made to wear masks and test weekly.
She and several others noted that vaccinated people can still be infected and spread the virus.
She urged an immediate end to the health emergency via a legislative resolution instead of this “half measure” of a bill.
The proposal would require companies that choose a mandate to provide a weekly testing option for employees, at the cost of the employer. It also would require a business to accept all exemption requests for medical and religious beliefs. That upends decades worth of state and federal precedent that allows employers to decide whether they are legitimate.
Multiple business entities opposed the bill.
Dr. Tyler Johnson, an emergency room physician in Fort Wayne and DeKalb County, said his job is at risk because he is unvaccinated. He said there is no data that shows he is a danger to patients. He also said coercing someone into weekly testing to keep a job isn't the same as consent. Johnson is running for the Indiana Senate.