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Florida's health care providers are caught between federal and state vaccine rules

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida's Legislature is meeting in a special session this week with one goal - to fight the Biden administration's vaccine mandates for businesses. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has crusaded against vaccine mandates, saying it's a matter of personal freedom. And caught in the middle are health care providers, who are facing fines and a potential loss of funding, no matter what they do. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In announcing the special session, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis said he wanted to protect workers' rights.

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RON DESANTIS: We're going to be saving a lot of jobs in the state of Florida. We're going to be striking a blow for freedom. We're going to be standing up against the Biden mandates.

ALLEN: Republican leaders in Florida's Legislature introduced several bills. One prohibits vaccine mandates for employees of government agencies, public schools and universities. Another says that businesses that adopt vaccine mandates have to offer broad exemptions. Democrats in the minority in Florida's Legislature are there for the special session, but they're not happy about it.

FENTRICE DRISKELL: Frankly, this entire special session is a political stunt.

ALLEN: Fentrice Driskell is a state representative from the Tampa area. Florida's Legislature is also moving to withdraw the state from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. That's because of a new OSHA rule requiring companies with more than 100 workers to make sure they're vaccinated or tested weekly. Driskell says pulling out of OSHA would cost millions and take years to accomplish.

DRISKELL: Governor DeSantis, I'm sure, will be long gone before this were ever to actually take place in Florida, as we all know that he has ambitions for 2024 running for president.

ALLEN: At a hearing yesterday, Republican State Senator Danny Burgess said the session isn't about the vaccine, but about trusting people to make the right decisions about their personal health. As to charges that the special session and the bills being considered are politically motivated, he said he agreed.

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DANNY BURGESS: This is 100% political. I acknowledge that. We are fighting the political nature of this unprecedented mandate.

ALLEN: Burgess said that he's been vaccinated and called it a miracle of modern medical science. But at the same time, he said the bills recognize people's doubts and concerns about the vaccine. Many of those with doubts and concerns were at the hearing. John Little, a doctor from Ocala, said he opposes a federal mandate that requires most health care providers to be vaccinated because it doesn't recognize immunity conferred by an earlier infection.

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JOHN LITTLE: There's no science. There's no medicine. We're just being treated as second-class citizens because we don't agree with the narrative that's being pushed by uninformed people.

ALLEN: The CDC says people with prior infections should be vaccinated because studies show it provides a strong boost in protection. That includes doctors and nurses. Under a new federal rule, all employees must be vaccinated at hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities that are reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid. Workers need to have their first shot by the beginning of December and be fully vaccinated by January. That would be in direct conflict with the proposed Florida law, which would allow $50,000 fines for institutions that fire unvaccinated workers. The head of Florida's Hospital Association, Mary Mayhew, says her members have to follow the federal guidelines.

MARY MAYHEW: Their hospitals are absolutely obligated to comply with the rule that's been issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in order to preserve access for millions of elderly Floridians and vulnerable Floridians who depend upon both Medicare and Medicaid.

ALLEN: In the meantime, administrators at hospitals and nursing homes have another concern about the federal mandate. Kristen Knapp with the Florida Health Care Association is worried it could worsen a nationwide staffing shortage.

KRISTEN KNAPP: We're very concerned about what this mandate will do on that December 5 deadline. Are we going to lose staff? And that's just not something that we can afford at this point.

ALLEN: Ultimately, Knapp says, the conflict will likely be resolved in the courts. A number of states have sued the Biden administration to block the vaccination requirement for health care workers. Florida's governor has indicated the state may soon take its own legal action. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.