On Thursday, Nov. 18, officials and Penn Highlands Healthcare held a teleconference in which they addressed the vaccine mandate that was issued on Nov. 4 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. There, they reiterated that they intend to comply with the mandate.

“The mandate requires all healthcare workers in the United States to be full vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022,” said Mark Norman, chief operating officer at PHH. “This federal mandate has a twofold purpose: to reduce the rusk of unvaccinated healthcare workers present to patient safety and also to provide stability and uniformity among all U.S. healthcare systems.”

Norman went on to remind everyone listening in that, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, PHH has adhered to every protocol and followed all state and federal requirements regarding employee and patient safety.

Therefore, Norman said, PHH intends to comply with the federal mandate in all seven of their hospitals—Brookville, Clearfield, DuBois, Huntingdon, Monongahela, St. Marys, and Tyrone—as well as their outpatient facilities, home heath agencies, long-term care facilities, and physician offices across their 39-county service areas.

“Failure to comply with the mandate would jeopardize our participation in federal government programs like Medicare and Medicaid,” Norman explained. “To put this in layman’s terms, if we don’t comply, they will stop reimbursing us for patients we care for who have Medicare and Medicaid insurance—which, at this time, currently represents about 66 percent of our net revenue across our health system. This will lead to less staff and less individuals that we can care for across this great state.”

Norman added that, if PHH fails to comply with the CMS mandate, not only will all of their hospitals risk incurring fines and penalties, there is a risk of closure, as well.

“If we fail to comply with the federal mandate, everyone stands to lose,” Norman said. “Not just our employees and patients, but everyone in our communities.”

PHH chief medical officer Dr. Russell Cameron supported Norman’s stance.

“People are still becoming seriously sick with COVID-19,” he explained. “Many are being hospitalized, and we’re seeing many deaths from the infection. One of the best ways that everyone—our employees, physicians, and the people in our communities—can protect themselves and each other is through the vaccinations.”

Cameron added that the vaccines have undergone the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history, asserting that they have met the Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to earn approval for authorization of a vaccine.

He then explained that there are two federal mandates. One, which was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, covers companies with 100 employees or more to be vaccinated and offers a weekly testing option for those who do not want to get the vaccine.

The other mandate was issued by the CMS and requires that healthcare workers be vaccinated with no option of weekly testing.

“The CMS mandate is the one that health systems are required to follow, including Penn Highlands,” Cameron stated. “According to the CMS mandate, all staff must be fully vaccinated—two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—by Jan. 4, 2022.

“Per the government mandate, weekly COVID-19 tests are not an option for healthcare workers who do not want the vaccine,” Cameron continued. “It applies to all individuals who conduct business with the health system, including non-employed physicians, students, volunteers, vendors, consultants, delivery personnel, drug reps… It includes practically anyone who walks through our doors except patients and their families.”

Cameron stated that any PHH employees who are not fully vaccinated by Jan. 3, 2022, will be placed on unpaid administrative leave for 45 days. The hope is that, in that time, they will change their minds and get vaccinated.

If 45 days pass and an employee still has not been vaccinated, as per the mandate, they will no longer be permitted to work at PHH.

Employees are allowed to seek exemptions to the mandate based on medical conditions or recognized religious beliefs. All requests for exemptions will be reviewed by a designated panel of medical and religious professionals.

“If Penn Highlands does not comply with this mandate, our communities stand to lose access to high quality healthcare because our health system will lose 66 percent of our net revenue, and then a lot of people will lose jobs,” Norman reiterated. “This would cripple the economies of the communities that we serve, where we have our local hospitals.

“We understand why the CMS mandate has people frustrated; we certainly understand that,” he added. “However, Penn Highlands believes in the vaccine, and we are encouraging our employees to get it.”

E. S. Young can be reached at eyoung@thedailyherald.net.

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