Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin presides over the Senate at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin issued a letter to Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, on Friday calling on him to reconvene the Legislature to address the issue of health care providers mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees.
Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun on Friday afternoon that he and Senate leadership plan to do more research before deciding whether to call the Legislature back into session.
But he seemed lukewarm to the idea, based on existing vaccine exemptions and the Republican Party’s goal of limiting regulation on private business.
“We’ll take a look at this,” he said of McGeachin’s request.
“We’re going to do research. We’re going to be deliberate,” he said. “This is not something that we’re going to do tomorrow morning, frankly.”
McGeachin issued her request less than a day after Saint Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s Health System and Primary Health Medical Group announced they would require all staff to be vaccinated by September. Saltzer Health, one of the largest medical groups in Idaho, said its owner Intermountain Healthcare “has not taken a position to require vaccination of employees.”
To meet the deadlines set by their organization, those workers would need to start the vaccination process anywhere from late July to mid-September, depending on their employer’s rule and which vaccine they choose.
“This has left numerous employees with these major health care companies with little recourse for not wanting to take the emergency use authorized vaccine,” McGeachin wrote.
Idaho is an “at will” employment state, Bedke noted. That means the employer or the employee may terminate their work relationship at any time, for almost any reason.
Health care workers have long been required to be immunized against influenza, hepatitis and other infectious diseases, he said, adding that nobody wants to send family members or friends into a hospital and “have them come back with some kind of virus.”
The Senate would have to return to Boise to vote on a new law, too, Bedke noted. And he’s not getting the impression that the Senate wants to rush into this request, he said.
“First stop is with the Senate. And the sign I’m getting is that they’re going to go very slow on this,” he said.
“There’s been over 300 million doses given with minimal problems, and couple that with the fact that Idaho is all about reducing regulations and staying out of the relationship between employer and employees,” he said.
“A tightly held tenet of the Republican Party is to stay out of the employer-employee relationship,” he said.
According to reporting from the Idaho Capital Sun, between 22% to 28% of the health care organizations’ staff haven’t gotten a coronavirus vaccine. Based on the size of their workforces, that means thousands of health care workers must now choose whether to leave their jobs or join the 725,147 Idahoans who have received a COVID-19 vaccination.
The requirements have been found legal by some courts and by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
They have been rolled out at hospitals across the U.S., facing resistance from some workers who don’t want to take the vaccine. They come as highly infectious variants, such as the delta variant, are spreading in the U.S. Hospitals and clinics throughout Idaho were overwhelmed with patients during COVID-19 surges, as their own employees got sick with the virus, leaving them short-staffed. The push for vaccination is partly to preserve Idaho’s health care capacity, they said.
Employers said they will allow religious or medical exemptions. That will factor into Bedke’s decision, he said.
Oregon has a law that says health care workers and certain first responders cannot be required to get vaccines.
Unlike the Idaho Senate, who voted in May to adjourn until the 2022 legislative session, the House of Representatives recessed to a date no later than Dec. 31. The move would allow the House to call itself back into session without needing Gov. Brad Little’s authorization for a special session. By Idaho law, only the governor can call the Legislature back for a special session once the body adjourns sine die.
During the recess, legislators are not receiving per diem payments or vouchered expenses unless approved by Bedke.
In May, Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun that the recess allowed a “crack in the door for the Legislature to react to the unforeseen,” and said he felt confident if there was business to conduct, then the Senate would come back into session. The Idaho Constitution says neither legislative chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the concurrence of the other chamber.
“I am formally requesting that you call the House of Representatives back into session, which the Senate would follow so that both chambers can examine this very important issue,” McGeachin wrote. “This is, after all, why the House of Representatives decided to recess rather than sine die so they could come back and examine critical issues within the state.”
McGeachin announced in June that she is running for governor in 2022, in part, she said, because of how Little has managed the pandemic in the Gem State.
In several social media posts, McGeachin has said she would not support things like vaccination passports or vaccine mandates. Instead, she said, Idahoans should be able to make their own health care decisions.
— Janice McGeachin (@JaniceMcGeachin) July 8, 2021
Bedke announced in May that he is running for lieutenant governor.
Candidates for the May 2022 primary may formally file to run for office with the Secretary of State’s office in February.
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