Debate is spirited and vote’s a squeaker on exemptions to covid-19 vaccine mandates – West Virginia MetroNews

The state Senate narrowly passed a bill outlining requirements for religious and medical exemptions to workplace covid-19 vaccination requirements.

After about two hours of debate, senators passed the bill 17-16 with one absence. Senator Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, has been away.

Eric Tarr

“I urge adoption of this bill, passage. I urge everybody to push that green button and show these health workers and every other worker who wants to make a choice about their own body with their eyes wide open that we support their choice to do that,” said Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.

Senators adopted an amendment, so the House of Delegates would still need to reconcile the bill before it goes to the governor. The House is returning from recess at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

In the Senate, passionate debate sprawled across topics like workers rights, the duty of employers, concerns about how new the covid-19 vaccines are, the importance of vaccines in controlling the pandemic and whether the bill would actually achieve its stated purpose.

The debate and vote also split the Republican supermajority. All Democrats voted against the bill. Republicans who voted against it included senators Charles Clements, Mike Maroney, Tom Takubo, Charles Trump and Ryan Weld.

Mike Maroney

Maroney, a radiologist in Marshall County, contended the doctors in the Senate had been intentionally left out of earlier discussions and that his colleagues had been “purposely, secretly, sneakily working this bill up so people couldn’t see it. That’s OK. I’m getting used to that.”

Maroney argued, “We’re not getting rid of a mandate. We’re putting a mandate on private businesses. It’s the biggest piece of trash I’ve seen dumped down the throats of private businesses in the Senate.”

Tom Takubo

Takubo, the majority leader from Kanawha County, said he had been reluctant to support vaccine mandates by medical facilities, but he had come to side with patients with weakened immune systems in cancer wards, pediatric units or nursing homes.

“Freedom only goes so far, as long as it doesn’t bleed onto another person’s freedom. Once you do that, you don’t call it freedom any more,” said Takubo, a pulmonologist.

Ryan Weld

Weld, the majority whip from Brooke County, said he doesn’t think people should be forced to take a vaccine they don’t want.

“But, to be honest, this is probably one of the worst, most poorly drafted pieces of legislation I’ve ever read in my life in how it tries to go about what it does,” said Weld, an attorney.

House Bill 335 allows exemptions for workers who provide signed documentation by a doctor or advanced practice nurse, after an in-person examination, that a specific medical precaution is warranted. It also allows exemptions through notarized certification for workers with religious beliefs against taking the covid-19 vaccine.

Tarr objected to complaints that the bill was crafted shoddily.

“For the attorneys who think this bill is poorly drafted, this bill’s been out here a week. If you really did have concern about the people of West Virginia and you appreciate the effort here, put in an amendment. I didn’t see it,” he said.

Dozens of employers under the umbrella of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the bill. “This bill sends a chilling message to employers looking to expand into West Virginia and sets up existing employers for a barrage of lawsuits,” the companies wrote.

Mike Romano

In a back-and-forth early in this evening’s session, Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, asked Tarr why those businesses would be against the bill. The Senate did not run the bill through a committee or seek public comment.

“Why is every major hospital, every major medical association in the state and the Chamber of Commerce against this bill?” Romano asked.

“You’d have to ask them why they’re against this bill,” Tarr said.

Romano then suggested the medical organizations are concerned about being out of line with federal policy. “They’re worried about their federal reimbursements  under Medicare and Medicaid,” he said.

Romano also asked Tarr why the bill is necessary.

“My question to you is, senator, if we’re complying with federal law, which is already in place, why do we need this bill? There’s already a medical exemption, already a religious exemption, so why are we taking the risk in putting our hospitals, nursing homes and medical providers like yours of not receiving reimbursement?” Romano asked.

Gov. Jim Justice introduced the bill partway through this week’s special session that initially was called for legislative redistricting and to allocate federal relief dollars to state agencies.

Ron Stollings

Senator Ron Stollings, another of the physicians in the Senate, said the goal should be to protect more people through vaccination. He, too, cited the businesses that want to be able to require vaccinations.

“When I look at people who are signed on against this, it’s a who’s who of businesses in West Virginia. They’re trying to protect the people that work for them,” he said. “We’ve lost enough West Virginians. Let’s put this away. It conflicts with the federal laws coming down the pike,” said Stollings, D-Boone.

Owens Brown

Senator Owens Brown, D-Ohio, said he has been working with the state’s coronavirus task force, underscoring the importance of vaccination. He questioned the logic of the bill.

“Why should another man’s religion compromise the health of another human being?” Brown asked. “Why should another person’s freedom of religion cause the death of another person? Freedom of religion is not absolute in this country. Freedom is not absolute.”

Rollen Roberts

Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, said he had heard from dozens of constituents who wanted the bill to be passed. Those included many workers in health sectors, he said. “No bill that we pass is filled with perfection,” Roberts said. “We have to stand with our constituents. We have to stand with our people.”

Craig Blair

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, came down from the podium to speak in favor of the bill. Republicans generally try to avoid placing barriers on how businesses operate, he acknowledged, but that has limits.

Then, Blair reached for a comparison about authoritarians.

“To say we never do any bills that tell businesses what they can and can’t do is false. It happens all the time. What we do as conservatives is say the government shouldn’t be overreaching,” he said.

“Frankly, I think this harkens back to Nazi Germany. Our federal government is using federal dollars to coerce citizens into being obedient to the state.”