Legal expert weighs in on Supreme Court vaccine and testing requirement block

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 10:36 PM CST
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - The Biden administration’s vaccine and testing requirements are split into three major parts. An OSHA rule for private businesses with more than 100 employees, a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Servicers rule for health care employees, and a rule for federal contractors.

The court heard oral arguments on the private business and health care rules last week. It’s unusual for the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments and issue an opinion months ahead of schedule, but OSHA’s February 9th deadline to start enforcing the requirements is coming fast, and the court makes special exceptions.

“Number one, is there a danger of significant irreparable harm that will happen either because this rule is allowed to go ahead and move forward and be enforced, or alternatively, that by not allowing it to move forward, there would be irreparable harm,” said Denise Hill, an Associate Professor of Public Administration Practice and 20 year veteran of health law. “So that’s one of the things that the courts were looking at.”

More than 80 million Americans would have been affected by the rule, spurring the court to early action.

Additionally, the rules were inconsistent across states. Stays had been issued by lower courts, stopping them in half the country. Iowa was one of the states where these stays were in place.

“And we really don’t like it when there’s such a division across the country,” said Hill. “So I think that’s the reason that the Supreme Court took the unusual steps of saying, let’s get more information through oral arguments.”

The results of that information gathering are two split opinions. A 6-3 majority put a hold on the OSHA rule, while a 5-4 vote barely upheld the requirements for health care workers.

“Both are temporary in terms of whether or not they can be enforced,” said Hill. “They both will be heard on their merits later.”

Hill says the difference comes down to who is enforcing the rule. In the case of OSHA, an unsigned court opinion asserts that the vaccine and testing requirements overstep OSHA’s job to protect workers’ health. Meanwhile, the opinion on health care employees says vaccination against COVID-19 is a protection for patients. The opinion concludes that vaccination is a reasonable requirement for health care operations to receive Medicare and Medicaid dollars.

But what, if anything, does the decision change about private companies setting their own vaccine requirements?

″The biggest thing is that employers still have obligations to follow OSHA standards and to protect patients from workplace exposure, occupational illnesses and grave dangers. Which does mean they still need to have a plan to address how they’re going to protect their employees from COVID-19,” Hill said. “It’s just that the federal government can’t tell them what specifically that needs to be.”

Hill says it will be months before the courts hear these cases on their merits, if the rules are still relevant at that time.

The third part of the requirements, making vaccination necessary for federal contractors, is still making its way through the lower courts.

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