UMC risks losing 1,000+ employees over federal vaccine mandate

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 7:24 PM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Health care providers across the nation are facing a distressing decision - require everyone who works inside their facilities to get vaccinated for COVID-19, or lose all Medicare and Medicaid funding.

President Biden announced the mandate in September, but last Thursday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave the final cutoff. Employees must have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or a one-dose vaccine by Dec. 6 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.

This mandate affects hospitals here in Lubbock, like University Medical Center. CEO Mark Funderburk says Lubbock’s health care workers have saved the city and this isn’t the way to treat them, but it’s the path he has to take.

“It was just a few months ago, the city was really claiming our employees as heroes. Everybody was. And now, the very heroes that have pulled us through, that have persevered, now we’re being forced by CMS to put their jobs at risk. It doesn’t sit well. It shouldn’t sit well. But it’s the path that’s been laid out before us,” Funderburk said.

1,300 of UMC’s 4,600 workers are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Funderburk says the hospital can’t afford to lose CMS funding, as it accounts for more than half of the budget. The mandate applies to every physician, student and volunteer who does business in the building. The hospital has scheduled upcoming clinics, encouraging more people to get the shot to keep their job.

“I feel hopeful. I think I have to be hopeful. I choose to be hopeful about the outcome of this as we see people begin to thoughtfully consider the mandate, the CMS mandate, and how they’re going to respond to it,” Funderburk said.

With less than 30 days to get more people vaccinated and all the records in order, Funderburk says the hospital has a tough hill to climb. There are two exemptions to the mandate - medical and religious. Hospital leadership, including physicians, chaplains, Human Resources and legal counsel, will internally decide which exemptions are granted. If people choose not to get vaccinated, Funderburk says the hospital is sending out guidance for them to leave in good standing, so they can be eligible for rehire.

“And so, we want to give them every opportunity to make the wise choice, to make the best choice for them. And then if they do choose to leave, which I hope they do not because we love our staff, that they will have every opportunity to come back,” Funderburk said.

Funderburk says distress about getting vaccinated is evenly spread across the hospital, without any single unit at a greater risk. UMC risks losing more than a quarter of its staff.

“You know, we’ve been short-staffed for quite some time. Every hospital in America seems to be short-staffed. People know we have waits to get into the hospital, of course we do, all hospitals do. And so, we have wrestled with trying to meet the demand for a long time. This will just be a tougher challenge,” Funderburk said.

Funderburk says his staff believes in the vaccine, the science and helping patients, but not a mandate.

“But personally, I’m very much in favor of the vaccine. I’m vaccinated. My family’s vaccinated. But I am not, not in favor of the mandate. There’s a choice, my employees they deserve a choice,” Funderburk said.

Being forced to take that choice away, Funderburk says is the most difficult decision in his 30-year career.

“Especially after the last 20 months. Especially when I’ve witnessed the teamwork in the hospital. This has been the worst. It’s difficult,” Funderburk said.

Funderburk says some facilities like urgent care centers, UMC Urgent Care at KingsPark for example, are not included in this mandate. They fall under OSHA. The vaccine mandate for it has been temporarily stayed by an appeals court. Funderburk says that contrast makes this even more difficult.

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