Supreme Court Releases Opinion on COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate for Health Care Workers

On Jan. 13, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion on the COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers that was implemented by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The mandate requires that to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding, participating facilities must ensure that their staff, unless exempt for medical or religious reasons, are vaccinated. Two District Court enjoined the enforcement of the mandate and the Biden administration moved the Court to dissolve the injunctions. After hearing oral arguments on January 7, 2022, the Court agreed with the Government and lifted the stay permitting the mandate to go into effect.

The Court noted that the most basic function of the HHS Department is to ensure that health care providers who care for Medicare and Medicaid patients protect their patients’ health and safety. The Court explained that Congress authorized the Secretary to promulgate, as a condition of a facility’s participation in the programs, such “requirements as [he] finds necessary in the interest of the health and safety of individuals who are furnished services in the institution.” To that end, the Secretary has long required that health care providers maintain and enforce infection prevention and control programs to prevent the development and transmission of communicable diseases and infections.

The Court considered that the rule was issued after the HHS Secretary determined that “vaccination of health care workers against COVID-19 was necessary for the health and safety of individuals to whom care and services are furnished.” The Secretary found that in many facilities, 35% or more of staff remain unvaccinated and pose a serious threat to the health and safety of patients.  “He also explained that, because Medicare and Medicaid patients are often elderly, disabled, or otherwise in poor health, transmission of COVID-19 to such patients is particularly dangerous.” The Secretary also considered that “fear of exposure” to COVID from unvaccinated staff could lead patients to forego necessary medical treatment. As a result, HHS issued its vaccination mandate issued as an interim final rule without the typical notice and comment period after finding “good cause” existed that it should go into effect immediately.

The Court found that Secretary’s mandate falls within the authority that Congress had conferred upon the Secretary and that the Secretary “did not exceed his statutory authority in requiring that, in order to remain eligible for Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the facilities covered by the interim rule must ensure that their employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.” Thus, the preliminary injunctions are stayed pending disposition of the Government’s appeal before the Fifth Circuit.

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